The curse of bright ideas

No one likes negativity. When you’re trying to inspire the team to higher things, it gets pretty tedious, pretty fast when that one person keeps pooh-poohing each and every idea.

“We tried it before and it didn’t work.”

“We just don’t have the capacity for this.”

“I know it worked for [insert department/brand/business] but we’re different.”

It’s one thing to hear this from front line workers, but it’s doubly bad when it comes from middle managers, those trusty lieutenants who are supposed to buy into your vision and make it happen.

It’s not hard to see why senior leaders can end up with the impression that their middle managers are a problem, an organisational permafrost that prevents meaningful change.

Yet this would be misguided. It’s a bit like thinking your frontline workers are lazy drones who will slack off if you don’t monitor them from clock-on to clock-off. If you assume the worst of your people, and treat them accordingly, then that’s what you’ll get (and what you’ll deserve).

When confronted by negativity, try reframing the problem. Firstly, it’s good that you’re hearing it, in a way, because it means they’re not nodding and smiling while secretly thinking it’s a ridiculous idea that will never work. At least they’re being honest.

Secondly, consider why they’re being negative and what role you as a senior leader may have played in that. As with so many worthwhile things, this starts with listening.

Bright ideas from above

A middle manager I knew was asked in a workshop once what their biggest headache was. Their answer: “bright ideas from above”.

That’s undoubtedly negative, but allow me to step into their shoes for a moment.

They’re stretched to capacity, given highly ambitious targets that feel arbitrary to them, don’t reflect evolving conditions on the ground and regularly change. Whenever they ask for additional resources or support, they’re told there isn’t the budget.

They feel that it takes something extraordinary just to get the basics done, let alone add 20% every year. They feel unappreciated, and that senior leaders either don’t understand or don’t care to understand what doing their job well actually involves. This means the major elements of strategy seem to them to come from an ivory tower.

‘Bright ideas from above’ are therefore – playing devil’s advocate, remember – both fatally distracting from the already difficult task of keeping the business going, and doomed to failure because they’re disconnected from the realities on the ground.

This may seem like whining to you. You may think that said middle manager just doesn’t understand the big picture, and that it’s their job to figure out how to make it happen.

But wouldn’t it have been better for that person to be involved in the strategy and plan where it affects their department, rather than hearing it proclaimed ex cathedra by a distant leader? Or if that middle manager’s concerns about resources weren’t just dismissed out of hand? Wouldn’t their understanding and ideas have been useful? If not, why did you hire them?

Leaders who listen to and support middle managers are far more likely to find them aligned to their vision, and positive about achieving their objectives.

And that’s really the point of alignment, that great holy grail of leadership – it isn’t something you do to someone, making them see it your way. It emerges from proper conversation, and conversation goes both ways.

So next time you hear negativity from below, don’t get annoyed, star listening. You may be surprised by what you hear.