They might not be strategic decision-makers or defend the front-line of your business, but middle managers are pretty crucial when it comes to getting safety right. These people, who work in first line management or supervision, are under constant pressure from both above and below. Yet from a leadership perspective, probably have the least amount of training of any group of managers in your entire business.
It’s a tougher role than you might think, and I realised this recently – not in the line of work duties, but on a different mission altogether.
Although my job description as ‘Dad’ says I’m in the family senior management team at home, in practice (especially on a weekend) I’m demoted to the role of first line supervision as my wife takes a well-earned toddler-free few hours. And had a recent family incident not been narrowly averted, the HSE would have been all over us, exposing cultural and leadership issues right across the family organisation.
It all began with a cat
I have three children under 4 which might sound like chaos (and you’d be right), but the least stable member of our family is Nelly. She’s a friendly cat (if you’re a cat person) but a bit of a wimp, and thanks to a ‘paws-on approach’ by local feline mafia throughout the years she’s developed an especially twitchy approach to life.
Our move out of London to the sedate Surrey countryside was supposed to help calm her nerves, as was her catty Prozac. Alas, it hasn’t turned out that way, and vicious country cats fed on big fat country mice, have made life ever tougher for Nelly.
Looking to technology, we bought an especially luxurious cat flap with personalised chip reader so she could beat a hasty retreat if the local pussy mafioso made her ‘an offer she couldn’t refuse’. Alas it fell to me to install this cat flap and, not famed for my DIY know-how, I’d endlessly put it off until one fateful day.
My son was in one of those moods familiar to every parent – endlessly requesting ice cream, sweets and crisps, and after a long week my wife was, shall we say, struggling to contain her emotions. One or two heated boardroom (kitchen) discussions occurred and management agreed that the best strategy for business was to ship our children off to our non-exec director (Granny).
Before we could implement the plan, however, it was zero-hour for cat-flap installation, or it wouldn’t get done until I returned from a blissfully relaxing holiday (business trip).
Increasing pressure, unrealistic expectations: something is bound to go wrong
Tools readied for a task I was wholly untrained to perform, I was simultaneously handed the responsibility of looking after the kids – the classic multitasking role of a modern middle management supervisor. Needless to say, under increasing time pressure and unrealistic expectations something was bound to go wrong.
And it did.
Perplexed by how to cut a cat flap hole in a solid door, my confusion was compounded by my daughter wandering in with a strange purple liquid on her lips, pointing to her mouth saying “yak”. I smelt it and there was a disconcertingly fresh waft of lavender on a summer breeze.
A quick incident investigation revealed that my son had helped her climb above the washing machine through an unlocked garage door and drew her attention to the colourful bottle of fabric conditioner. She’d pulled it down, he’d considerately opened it and then suggested she might like to taste the deliciously scented purple liquid.
Now, I knew I couldn’t get away with not reporting this particular incident so I went straight to my senior manager. The outcome was a calm and measured discussion about what was to be done (we have yet to cultivate a just culture under pressure).
I was instructed to call the emergency helpline number on the back of the bottle, the one presumably only there for frantic parents of enterprising children, and explained the situation. Luckily, the concentration of particular chemicals in the bottle wasn’t at a level dangerous enough to cause any serious problems, assuming my daughter hadn’t developed an ongoing taste for detergent.
Luckily we got away with it but there’s a moral to the story
If you rely on luck to avoid incidents because you’re too busy with other priorities, expect that luck to run out one day. Because hidden fractures in your organisation’s culture widen very quickly when untrained middle managers are squeezed under heavy workloads.
Empower leaders at every level by all means, but set realistic expectations and clear responsibilities, engage them in that process and support them along every step of the way.
Oh, and re-home your psychotic cat.