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Thaw the ‘frozen middle’ of leadership for creativity to flow

A version of this article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of SmartBusiness Cleveland. Reprinted with permission.

“Frozen middle” is a dismissive and frankly unfair term for middle managers who supposedly block progress because they’re too cautious to take risks. The phenomenon is real; lots of companies struggle with resistance to change. But it is leaders who have the most influence over whether middle management operates more like a glacier or a river.

Here are some suggestions that could be useful in organizations of any size.

Stop trying to hire the “best” people, and hire the right ones

A recent Atlantic article dug into the proliferation of terms like “ninja” and “rock star” in help-wanted ads. This quote, from the director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources, jumped out at me: “Folks are stuck in this idea of just wanting a bunch of ‘A’ players or the really great individual performers.” This is the Dream Team approach to hiring, and on the surface, it seems smart. But in my experience, that’s just not how innovation works.

Hiring for creativity is the single most important element to preventing stasis at all levels of your company.

Hiring for creativity is the single most important element to preventing stasis at all levels of your company. Groundbreaking innovation requires ongoing collaboration among smart, dedicated people with different perspectives who are equally adept at listening and challenging. You need teams that can sharpen and build on each other’s contributions, without regard for who will get credit (or blame). Friction generates sparks. As long as your culture isn’t combustible, that’s a good thing.

It’s also important not to fall into the trap of hiring only people who “fit” your existing culture. “What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with,” wrote Patty McCord, former Netflix executive, in Harvard Business Review in 2018. “But people with all sorts of personalities can be great at the job you need done.”

Hiring is also a great way to model the risk-taking you want to see throughout your organization.

the "frozen middle" of middle management can be thawed

Be available — but not too much

There is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Humans communicated non-verbally for many thousands of years before we developed speech, and facial expressions, nods, and gestures remain enormously important. Author and business consultant Simon Sinek emphasizes that management and leadership are different; the former is structural, and the latter is personal. Communication builds empathy, and empathy builds trust, and all three are vital to increasing an organization’s capacity to innovate.

But you can’t do this only in memos and meetings. Small-group and one-on-one interactions, especially unplanned ones, are invaluable. It hardly even matters if you’re discussing work; moments of personal connection can help make meaningful work-related communication easier. You’re not much of a talker? That’s OK, listening is more important anyway.

However, an all-day, open-door policy is too much of a good thing. “When staff is constantly bringing questions and problems to the boss,” writes productivity expert and TEDx speaker Maura Thomas, “and the boss provides answers and solutions, this can create the unintentional consequence of the team becoming disempowered (or lazy).”

Empower people

Empower Your Innovation TeamIn the Whitehall studies of the 1960s and ’80s, researchers examined the mortality rates among tens of thousands of British civil servants and found that those with lower status were far less healthy than their superiors. The conclusion: stress is harder to cope with when you feel powerless.

Even when it’s not deadly, stress is stifling. But what exactly does it mean to “empower” people? Let. Them. Make. Decisions. As the Wharton School advises: “You may have a vision for how you want something executed, but your team members may have more creative and efficient ways to complete a task. Be open to new ways of doing things, since that is how your team will grow. Don’t discourage different opinions or ideas. Be blatant about your encouragement of ‘thinking outside the box,’ so employees embrace innovative problem-solving and task completion.

We sometimes work with client-partners who rely heavily on rigid, stage-gated processes, with multiple deliverables required before each new step. This not only slows speed to market, but sends the message internally that caution is paramount. If there were a way to remove all risk from innovation, we would have found it by now.

A lack of trust often reflects an assumption that those below the C-suite don’t fully grasp the landscape or stakes. But that’s not necessarily so. A recent international survey showed that “workers seem to recognize more clearly than leaders do that their organizations are contending with multiple forces of disruption, each of which will affect how companies work differently.”

Be the change

The common thread through these suggestions is modeling. Middle managers got where they are in part by navigating the culture, which involves a lot of reading between the lines and hearing what’s not said. Everything upper management does and says sends messages. Be sure that your messages encourage the creative thinking and risk-taking that will help your company thrive.

Bill Nottingham, VP of Growth at Nottingham Spork, is a quarterly contributor to SmartBusiness Cleveland.

Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.

Topics: Business Culture, hiring for creativity, innovation company, News, risk taking, workplace culture, business innovation consulting, creativity in business, frozen middle management, innovation strategy, leadership

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