Leadership Tips for Middle Management and Team Leaders

I was rereading D. Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” this summer on a beach, and I ended up discussing limitations of Carnegie’s approach to team management with a couple of friends. The book is still a milestone when it comes to interpersonal skills and people interaction, yet we all agreed that some of his theories are not really applicable to day to day work.

Carnegie made several examples of how to influence and motivate people and while interesting and inspiring, they mostly refer to important, historical, figures. But can we, as team leaders and middle managers, just apply these techniques as they come? And if we fail, is it only because of our skills or there are some other aspects to consider? These techniques overlook one simple fact – not everyone’s words resonate the same with people. If I gave my best speech to one of my team members, would it get the same result as the same words coming from Bill Gates or Barack Obama? I really doubt it.

A few years back, I had the honour to have a mail exchange with Adi Shamir, one of the fathers of modern Cryptography, who encouraged me to challenge the results of one of his students from the MIT in my thesis. I was terrified but also galvanised!

I’m not saying that every word coming from the middle management or team leaders will be ineffective, I’m just saying that who says them is as relevant as the words themselves.

business-woman-2071342_1280The desire to be great and the feeling of importance are some of the most basic motivators. Receiving the acknowledgement from someone influential will only fuel these impulses.

Middle Managers and Team Leaders are usually seen as intermediaries and in most cases, this is true. Their role is mostly to manage day-to-day operations and report to the next level of management.

As middle managers, you can propose things but cannot actually make the final decision. Again, I’m not saying that it is impossible for you to influence, coach or guide your teams but simply that there are limits to your doing.

For example, an employee is unhappy with their current position or salary. In most cases, you cannot give them a raise or a promotion. The bigger the organisation, the weaker the direct management is. You can try to motivate your team members, give them a view of possible developments and opportunities, help them increase their knowledge and skills but since you cannot really grant their requests, in the long run, your motivational speeches will feel empty and all the encouragement will sound false.

So? Should you just give up? Of course not! All you need to do is really understand your role and how to play it. This part is where most of the managers fail.

There are two stages of the motivational process. In the first phase, you need to acknowledge your team’s accomplishments and in the second phase you need to get the higher level management to do that exact same thing.

action-2277292_640There is a number of books that can help you coach and inspire your team members. It is of vital importance we put all of our knowledge and energy into this phase in order to have motivated and performing teams.

When you notice this may not be sufficient anymore, you should not blame them but change your strategy.

At the next stage, it’s not up to us anymore to provide the inspiration. We must involve the next hierarchical level. By doing so we will be addressing the “desire to be great” of our team members simply by taking one step back and letting go of our ego. This is the tricky part.

Most employees speak only to their direct manager, sometimes for years. This is frustrating and may lead to the misconception that the direct manager is the obstacle to their aspirations.

As a Project Manager, I have always encouraged people to talk to the next level whenever they felt I’m unfair to them or I’m not doing the right thing. This allows people to feel visible to the higher level management. In the end, they feel reassured and like a part of a bigger whole.

Complimenting someone’s work verbally is good, but it’s even better to send a mail and CC higher level of management or other relevant actors. If you feel this is not enough, try writing directly to the higher level  (include the employee in the thread) and ask them to answer the mail. This will magnify the power of the message.

Don’t fall into the “you must find the opportunities” trap. You are the manager and you are expected to give your employees the options, coach them to achieve the next step in their career or just give them the acknowledgement they are looking for.

I’ve seen many good managers losing valuable employees just because they blocked the communication with upper-level management.

Don’t be afraid of putting someone else in the spotlight. By doing so, you will be a better manager and will have the loyalty and respect of your team.

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