Great Middle Managers are Effective Translators
Middle managers lead in a precarious situation. They don’t set the strategic priorities, but they’re accountable for getting it done—often without the influence to ensure they have all the resources they need.
And, every day, their teams look to them for support, which they may or may not be able to give. There’s one vital middle management skill that most middle managers struggle to learn, particularly as they are learning to scale their leadership.
Why Communication is So Tricky for Middle Managers
You know your boss cares deeply about customers, employees, and doing the right thing for your business. And, you’ve built a passionate team of customer advocates, who want their work to matter.
And yet here you are, precariously squashed in the middle of all this passion and good intentions. You’re doing the best you can to empathize with, and support, both the senior team and the frontline.
The cacophony of misunderstanding and misinterpretation can be deafening.
- “Why don’t THEY understand why this is so important?”
- “Why would she do THAT if she really cared about employees?”
- “How can THEY be so out of touch with reality?”
- “These executives DON’T HAVE A CLUE about how annoyed our customers are about this decision.”
- “This is JUST ANOTHER SIGN that the frontline is disengaged.”
As a middle manager, chances are no one put “translator” on your job description—and yet, if you can master this skill, you will be on your way to increasing performance, influence, and engagement.
How to Be a Better Translator
If you want to be a better translator, start with a focus on understanding and translating these five topics:
1. Translate industry dynamics into pragmatic straight talk.
Pay close attention to what is happening in the world around you and what it means to your industry, your company, and your team. Work to understand the competition and what they’re up to. Build genuine strategic partnerships with your suppliers and know what matters to them—and how this crazy time impacts them as well.
When you have the chance, ask informed questions of your senior team to gain additional perspective and deeper understanding.
The more you understand the strategic context, the better you can explain the “why” behind the “what.” All of this knowledge makes it easier to keep your team informed in easy-to-digest sound-bites that leave them both optimistic and about the future, and grounded in what they can do next to help.
2. Translate EBITDA into “What I need from ya.”
You’ve attended the kick-offs, heard the vision, and have a good sense of strategic priorities. That’s all great context to help your team feel like they’re part of something important. What matters next is that your team understands the “So what?” for them. Work to translate strategy into tangible behaviors.
Around here, our mission is to “rid the world of cynical dehumanizing leadership,” which is inspiring, but not all that useful unless we help every member of our team understand how they contribute to that mission by the work they do every single day, from how we engage with clients, the curriculum we choose to build, who we work with, and how to prioritize our time.
3. Translate executive urgency into tangible action.
As a middle manager, one of your most important jobs is to communicate a sense of urgency without creating unproductive stress. When an executive stumbles across something stupid happening on your team, it’s natural for them to worry about what else is wrong. Being a great translator means buffering some of that stress, helping everyone keep perspective, and (1) doing what must be done as efficiently as possible, and (2) keeping anyone who needs to know informed.
4. Translate employee angst into reasonable requests.
You’ve worked hard to translate executive strategies into tangible actions, connected what-to-why, and buffered your team from unnecessary stress and angst. Now it’s time to focus on translating in the other direction.
Your people have anxieties and real needs and are looking to you to be their advocate. One of the best strategies to translate people’s concerns is to frame them in terms of the strategic objectives that matter most and attach a specific, do-able request.
That way, you avoid looking as if you’re complaining or shuttling along an issue you can’t address. Instead, you’re coming with commitment and concern for what matters most and a specific way to help everyone get there. A clear, actionable request with strategic benefits will help you translate your people’s concerns in a way that gets results.
5. Translate deep questions into dialogue.
Great middle managers are the masters of great dialogue.
Once you’ve worked to translate concerns in both directions, take responsibility, and lead, you can take it a level further and work to foster meaningful dialogue.
To create dialogue, you position yourself as a facilitator for well-intentioned parties who are committed to success and have good ideas that will benefit everyone to hear and discuss. This sounds like, “There’s an opportunity here for us to build something together—or to find a deeper solution. That’s why I suggested we meet.”
Sometimes there’s no substitute for people hearing from one another and talking together. Save this skill for those moments where nothing less will do.
Mastering a middle manager‘s translation skills will help you deepen your reputation as a strategic and capable leader. What communication and translation skills would you add?
We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best suggestion to help middle managers navigate these communication challenges.
Communication Help for Middle Managers
- Industry dynamics into pragmatic straight talk.
- EBITDA to “What I need from ya.”
- Executive urgency to tangible actions.
- Employee angst into reasonable requests.
- Deep questions into dialogue.
Communicating With Executives When Your World Is On Fire
Harvard Business Review: Why Being a Middle Manager is So Exhausting
I’ve had to deal with this on occasion. My best results came from intently listening and letting my team members vent. After carefully listening for root issues, I would sympathize with them, but then offer them my take on what higher management’s goal or vision was that was impacting my employee in a negative way.
I was able to be sympathetic but pragmatic at the same time, without alienating my employees as a boss who just repeated the executives’ mantras.
It’s a fine line to walk, but when you learn it, you’ll gain your team’s trust, without sacrificing your relationship with senior leadership.
Jed, appreciate you adding that balance of “sympathetic but pragmatic” – it’s a both/and at the heart of effective translation!
Thank you, Jed. I love it “intently listening,” understanding, translating and supporting. Love it.