Managing in the Middle

An Executive Forum Presentation by Barry Oshry, Synopsis by Rod Cox
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“In nearly every organization, Tops and Workers are at odds over any number of
fundamental issues: whether the system itself is legitimate or illegitimate: whether its rules, structures and procedures should be maintained or changed; whether change — if there is to be any — should be gradual or dramatic; what it is to have an equitable distribution of system resources and who should decide that; how particular crisis situations should be handled; and so on.

In the midst of these issues are the Middles, on the one hand responsible for managing the work of the system, and on the other caught up in an endless series of disputes between Tops and Workers. They are pushed and pulled and subjected to a variety of pressures from Tops and Workers who may:

  • attempt to enlist their support and assure their loyalty on any number of issues try to use Middles as extensions of themselves — as spokespersons, messengers, mediators
  • try to use Middles to buffer themselves against intrusions or confrontations.

  • try to win Middles over to their positions through rational debate or by menacing them, cajoling them, co-opting them, or drawing on their sympathies. This then is the condition of Middleness, focused and sharpened. Middles tend to be seen by others in the system as well-meaning and hard working, yet uninformed and wishy-washy, agents of The Top or The Workers, inconsistent, weak, incompetent, powerless, and unable or unwilling to make important decisions on their own. And yet Middles are absolutely critical in assuring that the goals of the organization are realized.”