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:
Try to better understand the bigger picture that your boss and those above you in the organization are operating within. Do you know what keeps them awake at night? What their key goals and priorities are? Don’t wait to be told — find out.
Take the initiative to keep communication channels open with your boss. Set your top five goals. Get your boss’ input and adjust accordingly. Meet periodically to review progress and reset priorities. Ask, “What do you think I should keep doing, stop doing and start doing?”
Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you a reactor or leader? Does your attitude and do your actions just reflect the temperature of your more-senior managers to the people in your part of the organization? Or do you try to readjust and change the temperature?
Focus most of your own and your team’s energy on those things within your control. Pick carefully the areas or changes you would like to influence. Figure out how to let go of those things or circumstances over which you have no control. Not doing this just increases everyone’s misery and creates paralysis. The poet Longfellow was right on when he observed: “I have found that the best thing to do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”
Learn how your organizational game is played. Any group of five people or more is political. Politics involve relationships, trust, power, persuasion and influence.
Build networks and coalitions, especially if you’re trying to influence significant change. Work with those people who are ready to move forward and build momentum with you. Don’t fixate on the fence-sitters, naysayers or resisters. Involve your boss where appropriate.
When it’s the right thing, be the leader and do what needs to be done. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Seize the learning opportunity. We can all learn what not to do from an especially bad leadership example.
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.”