The Paradoxical Effect of Enlightened Self-Reliance

A Tale with Two Perspectives on Middle Management

Today flatter, faster, global is less often the hyperbole of some promised future state and more often the familiar trajectory of change, or a well-worn, if not optimized, mode of running the business. And sandwiched between senior management and the ground-level agents of execution, those who actually deal with customers, is a lean pool of increasingly stretched middle managers. Many are members of the so-called Millennial Generation, a demographic most firms are struggling to “understand”.

Of course, understanding implies perspective taking. After all, facts, feelings, and the interpretation of both arise from a point of view, which is nested in a social-organizational context. When we see people as a segment of the population, in aggregate, we look for and usually find their shared qualities as a demographic group. We attribute objectivity to this understanding. We hope to find ways to keep them engaged, make them productive, and retain the “best”. Understandable aims.

But there are two vantage points from which to view the situation in which achievement-oriented, mid-level managers find themselves today. First, there is the corporate standpoint from which they’re seen as a resource, input to the “talent pipeline”. From this view they’re also an expensive resource that must be leveraged for maximum return. The second perspective is from the subjectively lived experience of a middle manager, how it looks, feels, and unfolds for them as unique persons with a life outside of work.

Even the most benevolent and humane of corporate strategies – those that place a premium on human resource development – will ultimately regard middle managers somewhat impersonally, as assets and a significant expense item in the operating budget. When times are tough and the prevailing judgment is that we can and must run leaner – remember 2008 – the more aspirational and contingent nature of such strategy commitments becomes very obvious quite quickly.

If that strikes you as negative or cynical, please consider this. Just as upper management generally believes their middle managers are empowered to act, and to overcome or mitigate potential barriers to performance objectives, I believe it is equally plausible to assume that management has more choices available to them than layoffs when financial shortfalls occur. In my opinion, there is little excuse for either party to play the victim when they find themselves in the face of daunting challenges.

That said, my aim in this article is to address the middle manager personally, individually, and directly. For them, I believe that macroeconomic conditions and organizational norms must viewed as relatively fixed factors to which they must adaptively respond and accommodate. When they take this approach, we come upon the paradoxical effect I allude to in the title, i.e., a certain kind of “enlightened” self-reliance, which turns out to yield win-win results for middle managers and their management.

I shall only briefly highlight the main threads of this thesis here. The full body of theory, principles, and the ways in which both are translated into an innovative development strategy for those in the middle will be addressed in a forthcoming book that I am presently working on.

Self-Empowerment, Not Life on an Island

Those in supervisory and middle manager roles in today’s world of business represent about 25 million people, about 16% of the U.S. workforce. Most are Millennials, but I will not dwell on their characteristics as a demographic group; we’ll leave that to those in workforce planning. What I have to say to the career-oriented, Gen Y manager is less about their generation and more about the social-organizational reality they face as persons and how best to navigate it.

To briefly make the context of challenge clear, I enumerate below ten “thesis points”, all or most of which are supported by research. My purpose here is not academic, so what I offer is a point of view that I believe the you can intuitively evaluate for descriptive accuracy and plausibility. In sum, I hope these thoughts provide at least the suggestion of a mindset and approach for how aspiring Millennials might take charge of their career-oriented personal development.

Thesis Points Concerning the Context for Middle Managers:

1. The transition from being an individual contributor to managing and leading others is a big change, it requires a level of adaptive development similar to life’s other milestone events, e.g., parenting.

2. There is a difference between learning technical-instrumental skills and leader development. The former concerns doing, the latter affects our capacity to function in and through relationships.

3. Leading others is largely dependent on our capacity to form, shape, and sustain trust in our relations with others. Abiding trust is required for a robust sense of personal and interpersonal security to form.

4. Identifying “high potential” candidates for development is an imperfect “science”. “False negatives” and “false positives” occur. Management usually catches the latter but often misses the former.

5. The felt contingency of a firm’s commitment to us induces a felt sense of insecurity. Each of us also have our own personality-based sources of insecurity. We must manage both sources of insecurity.

6. A major mistake we make when lacking security is overpromising and taking imprudent risks. It is often an unnecessary act of desperation, overcompensation, not evidence of realistic confidence.

7. Life can’t be divided neatly between demands we face at work and at home. We are one. Rewards and stresses from all directions intermingle and affect us in all directions, often unconsciously.

8. A mature sense of security is required to adaptively self-manage risk-taking and self-advocacy, and to correct for the asymmetry of power between the individual and the organization.

9. Unless our sense of security is sufficiently strong, we will disempower ourselves. Our confidence in taking the realistic risks associated with stretching and growing will be adversely impacted.

10. The mature sense of security needed to promote career-oriented development in an organizational context will most reliably arise in a high-trust, professionally competent relationships.

Relationally-based personal development does not come without significant effort. That’s because when we attempt to revise long-standing habits of mind, emotion, action, and interaction that block adoption of the new habits we need as organizational leaders today, we are essentially faced with “rewiring” our brain. Through focused reflection and dialogue, we jointly explore our self and situation, figuring out what helps/hinders forward progress, what needs to change, and then daring, with a mix of supportive encouragement and “tough love”, to do things differently even when it feels uncomfortable at first.

It requires that we obtain a deep understanding of ourselves, including the less conscious feelings and fears that affect our capacity to act from security with mature judgment, and relate to others with true confidence. Out of this a fuller sense of self emerges. As we build forward in career relevant areas of behavior, it is rare that our growth does not also generate significant rewards outside of work as well.

The Paradoxical Effect

What I have observed is that when developing leaders acquire and internalize this mature, career-oriented sense of personal security, they get “smarter” and more effective, and they become more valuable to their company. They learn how to give to others more of what they themselves needed in order to bolster their own felt security. They recognize and deal with people as persons first, leading and collaborating for ends they all have reasons to care about.

Thus, we discover that enlightened self-reliance is born, lives, and thrives in healthy, adaptive relationships. It is in and through these kinds of relationships that genuine loyalty emerges. While this may prove to create a contagion of healthy relationships and engagement at the organizational level – and that would be great – it is only through the initiative and personal concern of individuals that we can count on it. So be the change you wish to see happen!

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com or phone at 401.885.1631.