How middle managers can manage up, down, and still get things done

January 30, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
THE OFFICE -- "The Dundies" Episode 1 -- Aired 09/20/2005 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Krasinski as Jim Halpert, Steve Carell as Michael Scott and Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute -- Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank
from a photo by Justin Lubin—NBCU/Getty Images

Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here.

Welcome to the first edition of Work Space. We’re kicking things off with this especially thoughtful reader question, which touches on many concerns that often come up for managers, and it even acknowledges the role the question-asker may play in the situation. 

If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com. Here’s a look at what we’re going to be focusing on in the coming months. 

The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Every week (or most weeks) my supervisor and I have an informal (read: no agenda) touch-base, during which we review open projects and discuss new work requests he has. I pride myself on managing priorities and expectations, and, often, the “pet projects” of my supervisor are requests I have to diplomatically negotiate their place in the queue; my supervisor doesn’t always recognize what is and isn’t pressing.

I recently hired a direct report, who—I am proud to say—is doing quite well: She is smart, skilled, personable, and very well liked. My supervisor has suggested she sit in for our weekly meetings. I am hesitant about this because I work hard to filter her from nonsense, unimportant work, and the general “dirty laundry” of our company, and these meetings usually contain one or all of the above.

My fear is her genuine “can-do,” eager-to-please spirit might lead to insignificant projects clogging our productivity pipeline. I realize that, on the surface, this conundrum points to my fear of losing control of the chain of communication and chain of command.

How do I handle this in a way that preserves my role as an effective project manager with a knack for strategic filtration that regularly benefits the business interests (whether or not anyone realizes it)?

—Jay


Dear Jay, 

As a manager who often has to find a balance between what people are excited about and what can actually be done, I totally empathize. At the heart of your question are a number of challenges that frequently come up for middle managers: 

  • How do I keep my boss on track?
  • How do I protect my staff?
  • While I’m managing everyone, how do I actually get things done, namely the things that I know we should be doing?

It’s great that you’re self-aware enough to notice that your question is in part grounded in your own fear of losing control. There’s another dynamic at play here too: In your quest to protect your priorities, you’ve taken on a lot personally. With all the navigating you’ve been doing—around both personalities and projects—you’ve been managing a lot of things on your own

Actively manage your coworkers. Take some of the energy you’ve been using to keep your boss and your direct report apart and start focusing on managing them in new ways. Own your role as both a manager and project manager. If you’re a little more transparent and proactive with both your boss and direct report, you’ll help keep them on track and give them space to share ideas in a more productive way.

Trust your direct report more. It’s noble that you want to protect your direct report from mess. The thing is work, like people, can sometimes be messy. There’s only so much you can do to control that. Your direct report shouldn’t know everything all of the time about all the mess. You do have a responsibility to shield her from some things. At the same time, you want to be sure that as you seek to protect her, you don’t freeze her out of all conversations. The best thing you can do for her is set expectations about her role.  

There’s a Gallup report from a few years ago that surveyed over 7,000 adults and found that—surprise—in order for people to do well at work, they need to know what they are expected to do. “Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance,” the report says. “Great managers don’t just tell employees what’s expected of them and leave it at that; they frequently talk with employees about their responsibilities and progress.” Communicating when and how it’s appropriate for her to weigh in is crucial, and it will make you a better manager.     

As you invite your direct report in, whether to these meetings or other business, here are some tactics you might use:

  • Before: Take a few minutes before the meeting to get on the same page. Share the agenda in advance so she knows what’s important. Set an expectation that you’d like to be the one committing to what your team takes on and when it’s a priority. Be sensitive in your phrasing if you’re going to ask a woman to not speak up at different points in a meeting. Use “we” whenever possible: “This is a meeting where we usually just listen and chime in if needed.” 
  • During: Echo and support her when she weighs in, and when you raise things that she’s brought up with you separately, give her credit for her ideas. 
  • After: In your own one-on-one time with your direct report, reinforce the priorities you’re working on, while showing how you can tie new information from the meeting into what you’re working on. Encourage your report to share ideas with you. You’ll be able to give her private feedback, can connect her work to your priorities, and you’ll be ready to support her good ideas in front of the boss. 

It’s important to not inadvertently discredit your boss or other colleagues. Just reinforce that it’s about being on the same page and having the leverage to advocate for your team’s work.

Reframe your relationship with your boss. Work with both your boss and your direct report instead of working around them. Be more open with your boss about how you’re managing your report and how that impacts the time you spend with him. Let him know that you want to support your smart and skilled direct report, while you’re also sensitive to managing her workload. It’s great for your boss to know that you are working to give her opportunities and also, you are worried that her can-do attitude is going to result in her taking on more than she’s ready for at this time. Part of your job in the middle is to show him that he can support you by trusting you to manage her and her time. (If you’re looking for more insights about managing from your position, you might like The Middles, an insightful newsletter by Kim Bui that explores challenges specific to project managers and others managing in the middle.)

Consider what you need from your weekly meeting. If you need to discuss things your boss will agree are private matters your report can’t be privy to—payroll, vendor issues, and so on—you might invite her to project-based meetings instead of your weekly. Or suggest that the first weekly meeting of the month is for recurring sensitive issues, and she can join other meetings. By identifying what’s important to you about your one-on-one meetings with your supervisor, you give him another opportunity to support you as a manager. 

Take control of your meetings. My number one please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is take this time to address these ambiguous meetings. You’re doing tons of work outside of meetings to keep things on track. The fact that your boss brought it up gives you a perfect opportunity to share your own ideas about how you’d like meetings to change. Use meetings—whether these meetings or a new meeting structure—to test some new ways of working with your coworkers. Tell your boss that his suggestion got you thinking about how you could make the meetings more valuable for everyone. Propose to experiment over the next couple of months with some small changes. This gives you both a precedent to check in on what’s working and a chance to share what you value in the meetings. 

Agendas get things done. Bring an agenda to every meeting. It sounds small, but it’s a major shift to your approach. It gives you an opportunity to set priorities and a guide to keep everyone on track. Imagine how it might feel to know what’s going to come up in those meetings every week, before the meeting starts. Whether you draft the agenda in advance, contribute to it together at the start of the meeting, or ask your boss to send you a quick email with what he wants to address, I guarantee having an agenda will help rein in these meetings. Check out Ask a Manager’s stellar rules for making meetings useful for your team, which include some of my favorite moves.  

By taking a more active role in setting the tone of the weekly meetings, you’re going to find that you’re more in control of what the team is focused on. By adding some structure, you can better understand how and when someone new can join a meeting without throwing a wrench in your well-laid plans to be productive. 

Trust yourself. If you bring someone else into these meetings, they might get messier. They also have the potential to get even more productive as you demonstrate your leadership and project management skills. Trust that you will still be great at managing priorities and expectations even when people see more of the mess. You may be surprised to find out that when your boss or your direct report knows a little bit more about what you’re dealing with, you might not have to shoulder so much of it (and the work of hiding it) on your own. 

Sending you good vibes, 
Jen

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