You probably can’t push your rockstars any more. If there was room for one more trophy on their mantelpiece / resume, they wouldn’t be waiting for a poke from you. They are go-getters, remember? They would have gone right out and got ‘em.
Nope, the laggards won’t whir to life all of a sudden, either. For a variety of reasons - partly genetic and partly ‘environmental’ - they are still struggling to make sense of the universe and their place in it.
So, that leaves us with the middle child.
Largely typecast as a tribe that started out with great promise but somehow lost the plot along the way, the guys in the middle fend off neglect and apathy everyday. A bit like the archetypal middle child, who grows up in the shadow of elders garnering all the attention and youngsters hogging all the spoils. Don’t feel sorry for them, though, because it is really the leadership’s loss. Productive (they wouldn’t have risen steadily up the ranks if they weren’t), responsible (they are often saddled with the heaviest workloads and yet keep delivering without demur) and a pitara of untold possibilities (talent or experience, they possess oodles of both), middle managers represent the most underutilized capital in business. And they are proof that sometimes, the gold we are chasing sits right under our noses.
What does Research say about being the Creamy Middle in the Oreo Sandwich?
Alfred Adler, in 1964, first drew the world’s attention to the importance of the birth order in personality development. In it, he made a case that the ‘Middler’ (as he referred to them) can feel overwhelmed by sibling dynamics, leading to feelings of disillusionment, loneliness and even bitterness. The emotion can stretch into adulthood, and folks ‘caught in the middle’ can end up having a ‘distant’ relationship with their parents. Substitute that ‘distance’ with a feeling of detachment from the culture at workplace, the ‘overwhelmed’ by a daily ritual of being overshadowed by rockstars and ignored by the leadership, the ‘loneliness and resentment’ with a career curve that’s flatter than a punctured tyre, and what you have is a large chunk of middlers who’re capable of lots more, but are unable to push the boundaries.
History, for one, is certainly rooting for the middlers. Deep dive and here’s what you’ll find:
52% of US Presidents have been middlers - Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Zachary Taylor, Woodrow Wilson, James Monroe, Herbert Hoover, and even Donald Trump to name a few.
Visionaries with trailblazing abilities have been middlers - Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Walt Disney, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and even Charles Darwin.
Even in Sports, Arts and Literary fields, the middlers have left a forever mark - Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.
What’s the correlation you ask?
Science says, middle children are usually great at making a meal of the ‘unfair hand’ they’ve been dealt with. This means they turn out more sensitive and empathetic, fiercely independent, while being excellent team players.
Used to not having the right of way, bestows on them the ability to see the other side of the coin, keep their egos under check, judge reactions and emotions more accurately and exercise patience. Middlers usually turn out to be highly skillful negotiators and people analysts - a rare trait and an excellent asset for any business.
Being stuck in the narrow Suez Canal between the uppers and lowers forces middlers to become experts at finding ‘escape routes’. This builds a natural knack for taking (considered) risks and churning out out-of-the-box (ie, thinking laterally) solutions.
Middlers carry vast - and untapped - reservoirs of entrepreneurial ideas and abilities, which can engineer disruptive value for the organization.
Their outstanding abilities to cross-collaborate, network interdepartmentally and connect silos can unlock unexplored synergies for the organization and build a unique competitive edge.
They have great people and culture skills, which makes middle managers awesome at managing tension, keeping relationship channels greased and maintaining optimal levels of morale across the organization.
Two Possible Reasons You Are Not Getting More out of Your Middle
Despite so much going for them, why do businesses struggle to level with the masters in their middle? Why do middlers continue to languish in the blind spot of boardroom strategies and people policies?
One: The Jekyll and Hyde Balancing Act (It's a Tought Act)
Middle Managers have a complicated relationship with, well, relationships. Are they subordinates of their supervisor? Or supervisors to their subordinates? Yes, both may be on the Job Description menu, but which is their primary role? By the time a middle(wo)man figures the riddle out, it’s usually too late : S/he has joined the dazed and desensitized league of the ‘Permanently Nonplussed’. To quote an article in the HBR, “By virtue of their structural positions, middle managers are simultaneously the “victims and the carriers of change”.
Two: Cluelessness (For Want of a more Accurate Team)
There’s no point hiding it under the rug. While most of your people who occupy the middle tier may be brilliant at their specific roles and skills, chances are that a mid-managerial position has been thrust upon them as a part of the standard promotion loop and / or incentive structure. Management, however, is a very specialist art + craft + science that must be mastered over training and time. Middle management, even more so. Some questions one will have to continuously wrestle with in this role are:
How do you sell the vision of the top management to a team that features widely diverse personas and leanings?
How do you set expectations and motivate juniors, especially if you are the introverted type?
How do you appraise the performance of those who’ve been in the company for far longer (and have, therefore, experienced the pangs of a journey you couldn’t possibly fathom)?
How do you understand the mind of Gen Z?
Leadership development expert Renny Bloch captures the quandary of the middle in his own words: “Many managers are never given the tools or training to manage. Often, they don’t have all the information they need to make informed decisions. Or in some cases, they are never told why a decision was made from upper management. In particular, they struggle with the soft skills: giving feedback, setting expectations, developing their team, and managing conflict.”
Bring out the Leader in your Middlers with the Power of Leaderboards
It’s official. Nothing brings out the performer in us better than competition, and middle managers are no exception. Leaderboards are an old and popular hack - originating from the universe of video games, that track the relative progress of participants who play a game, which is designed in alignment with job asks and tasks, on a common scale.
Sales and people leaders have always known the power of leaderboards, and have regularly turned to ‘gamification techniques’ to leverage its impact. However, not all have been equally successful at it. The reason? As cool and fun as it sounds, gamification is not easy. Certainly not if you are applying it to as complex and opaque a mindset as that of your middle workers.
That trick is customization. Standardizing yardsticks is, conversely, the surest way to demotivate players. Remember that the reason they decide to participate in a sales gamification contest in the first place is the rush of adrenalin, with a whiff of fun. It’s a refreshing break from the drudgery of the daily grind. So the last thing you want to do is to throw them back into the mundane and de-humanized rat race. And yet, you must make sure that the fundamental parameter - designing the experience around their key job KPI’s - is met. How do you balance both?
Benefits of Gamification and Leaderboards
Gamification can address the lacunae in your middle management engagement model with surgical precision. Here are three big takeaways:
Visibility: Leaderboard progress gives you visibility into both the mindset and skillset of participants so that you can course correct.
Behavior: Gamified contests let you nudge and coach success behaviors in real-time, closing target-achievement gaps on-the-go, and accelerating outcomes greatly.
Engagement: Pick special phases or stages of the game to appreciate effort, recognize intent and reward achievement, thus building meaningful and productive bonds with your ‘middle players’.
Experience the power of gamification with Xoxoday COMPASS. Book a demo today!
The best part? Our plug-and-play systems integrate seamlessly with your existing tools and infrastructure, making it easy to get started as early as, yes, today!
At Xoxoday, we deeply understand the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and engagement drivers of people, be it an employee, supplier, contract staff, gig, or consumer. We bring simplicity and continuity to a complex everyday problem.