By Jim Clemmer
We all know people who suffer from "Victimitis" — the poor-little-me syndrome whose verbal symptoms include: "They are doing it to me again," "There's nothing I can do," "It's all their fault." Indeed, many supervisors and middle managers agree that Victimitis is a big problem at work.
Unfortunately, they don't recognize the extent of their own infection.
Looking right past themselves, they look for ways to change everyone else. They aspire to lead but end up demoralizing their own teams and frustrating themselves by choosing to be disempowered by their bosses. They give away their power by believing that they don't have any. They unwittingly fall for the cult of heroic management — the notion that leadership comes down from on high.
These middle leaders could energize their teams and organizations. Instead they Dilbertize their workplaces by living in Pity City and modelling helplessness and cynicism. They often complain bitterly as they wait for their boss and others higher in the organization to open doors for them. But they don't realize that the handle is on the inside.
It's all too easy to point fingers upward and shake our heads in disgust. It is much harder to point our finger at the mirror as another potential source of our leadership problems. As journalist and author P.J. O'Rourke puts it: "When we do find someone to blame, it's remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver's licence."
Research on high-performing organizations that adapt rapidly to change increasingly points to the crucial role of middle and lower managers.
European Institute of Business Administration professor Quy Nguyen Huy found that at companies making lasting, effective changes, middle managers are far better than most senior managers at leveraging informal networks and staying attuned to employees' emotional needs.
He also discovered that the successful ones manage the continuity between extreme inertia and extreme chaos during turbulent times.
In his book Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, Geoffrey Bellman challenges upward-looking managers: "You may be thinking, 'But someday I will be in charge of the committee [or agency or division or team] and I will change things!' Well, think again. That's akin to getting married with the plan to start changing your spouse immediately after the ceremony."
Instead, they need to practise upward leadership now. Here are some tips:
As our organizations struggle with change, we can either be navigators, survivors or victims. Our leadership response doesn't depend on our position; it depends on our choices.
In dealing with a bad boss or weak leadership further up the organization, take Leonard Schlesinger's advice:
"It's not up to you to change your boss, but you can change your situation. You can do this in one of three ways: impose or relax constraints on the situation, work your way around the situation or get out of the situation."