Don’t just vent about senior leadership

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“Is this meant to be like group therapy or something?”, Jodie asked somewhat jokingly. 

It was the first time I was facilitating a ‘coaching circle’ for this particular group of middle managers. 

Sometimes they are known as ‘coaching circles’; other companies refer to them as ‘learning circles’; and some public sector agencies call them ‘peer learning groups’. Regardless of what they are called, these intimate coaching sessions are an opportunity for me to work more closely with smaller groups of leaders who have been through a program or a series of workshops with a much larger cohort. 

On this occasion, I was meeting with Jodie, Craig, Sean, Giles, and Brittany. 

There had been close to 40 participants in the main workshop and we had covered several topics over the course of the two days. This would be a chance for me to get to know these five leaders better, and for us to unpack the topics and reflect on how each of them had individually been experimenting with the various concepts since the workshop. 

“I’m up for a bit of group therapy”, Craig said trying to keep the humour going. 

“Let’s start with what each of you had listed as your key commitments from the workshop”, I said. “And we’ll then go around the group one-by-one to see how each of you has been implementing them in your teams”. 

“I’ll kick off”, Giles said. 

For the next 12 minutes, the discussion spiralled into what I can only describe as a relentless whinge fest. They just fed off one another with excuse after excuse as to why over the last four weeks none of them had been able to experiment with any of their key action points. 

I observed deflection, blame, finger pointing, accusations of poor communication from senior management; a lack of vision or unclear strategies from senior leadership; inconsistent decision-making; micromanagement and lack of trust; a disregard for recognition or reward; and their own decreased morale resulting from a perceived lack of credibility from their own bosses. 

“I’m going to hit the pause button and stop you all right there if I may”, I said. “There’s no point in just venting about senior leadership. This is a coaching session. So let me just ask you one question. What are each of you going to do about it?”. 

Sure, I was direct. And I was more than happy to let the silence hang there for as long as I had to. 

I then gave the group 10 minutes to revisit my original question and to go back to their list of commitments from the workshop and to come up with how they planned to implement their goals or experiment with some newer ideas or concepts. And I was adamant that when the 10 minutes was up, if any of them chose to speak, we’d be hearing proactive commitments, and action steps … and no more excuses or complaints about any of the senior leadership team. 

The five participants all avoided making eye contact with me. I was completely fine with that. But 10 minutes later the energy in the room completely shifted. You could feel the change. They all knew I wouldn’t let another whinge enter the space. I was holding them all to account. 

It absolutely worked. And for the next half an hour, I facilitated a high energy, proactive, goal setting strategy session. 

“I definitely wasn’t expecting shock therapy today”, Brittany said causing a few of the others to chuckle.  

“I guess that’s exactly what we needed”, Sean said. “Thanks for calling us out on it”. 

It’s not like I’d had a choice. I hadn’t been brought in to facilitate a blame game. I couldn’t let them continue to be the barriers to their own success. 

In a previous article, we’ve shared how middle managers can sometimes find themselves in a peculiar position – sandwiched between the directives from senior leadership and the day-to-day realities faced by their teams. It’s a role that requires finesse, resilience, and no small amount of patience. 

All too often, middle managers fall into a trap of passivity, succumbing to the temptation to blame senior leadership for every setback or challenge they encounter. 

As I had bluntly pointed out to my coaching circle group, there’s no point in just blaming or venting about senior leadership. 

If you are a middle manager, it’s time to shed the role of perpetual victim (which is exactly how I had described what I’d observed during the 12-minute whinge fest I referred to above) and start taking control of your own destiny. It’s time to stop being the jam in the sandwich (or the cheese in the toasty) and start being the driving force for change within your organisation. 

One of the most common grievances aimed at senior leadership is their apparent lack of communication. Sure, it’s frustrating when directives seem to materialise out of thin air, leaving you scrambling to make sense of them. But here’s the thing: 

Instead of waiting for clear instructions to trickle down from the top, why not take the initiative to seek clarity yourself? 

Schedule regular check-ins with your superiors, ask the tough questions, and don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions. Remember, when it comes to ‘influencing up’, effective communication is a two-way street. 

There’s no denying that it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of organisational challenges, particularly when you’re being pulled in every direction. As I reiterated to the group at the end of the coaching circle session, as a middle manager, you have a lot more influence than you may realise. Whether it’s streamlining processes, boosting team morale, or championing innovative solutions, there are countless ways you can make a positive impact. 

Don’t wait for permission to lead – seize the reins and show senior leadership what you’re capable of. 

Middle management can be a lonely road, fraught with setbacks and disappointments. But it’s how you respond to adversity that’s important. You’re not just responsible for managing tasks – you’re responsible for leading people. Show your team members what it means to be proactive, resilient and accountable. Focus on what you can control, take ownership of challenges, demonstrate integrity in everything you do and hold yourself to the same standards you expect from others.  

By adopting these strategies, as a middle manager you can strengthen your resilience, take proactive steps to address challenges, and shift your focus from complaining about senior leadership to driving positive change. 

As I had witnessed, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of “us vs them” thinking, pitting middle management against senior leadership in a never-ending battle for supremacy. But here’s the reality: You’re all in it together. 

Instead of putting up barriers, focus on building bridges. Foster open and honest communication with senior leadership, seek common ground, and work collaboratively towards shared goals. 

Complaining won’t solve anything. As I had encouraged my group of coachees to do, focus on solutions instead of fixating on problems. Take a more proactive approach to problem-solving, brainstorming creative ideas, and rallying your own team around a common purpose. 

For any middle managers reading this piece, the time for complacency is over. Please stop playing the blame game and start taking control of your own path. Take a stand and show senior leadership what you’re made of. 

Remember Hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through impactful coaching, and ideally helping middle managers appreciate that the only person standing in the way of your success is you. 

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