In The Middle
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 0:11
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path to Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we're uncovering what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Well, welcome back again, Marsha. And you know what? I am still processing last week's episode "A Real TOOT", where we checked in with former Power Lab participants and explored what life was like when they were in those societal system spaces of elite, middle and immigrant.
Marsha Clark 0:42
Yes, welcome back to you as well, Wendi, and to our listeners. And yes, as we said when we opened the episode, there was a lot of energy in that room and some of it has been there for almost a decade.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 0:51
Yeah, next time we do that, maybe we need to bring some wine or some whiskey or something.
Marsha Clark 0:56
Yeah, there you go. So, you know, it was an interesting, I would call it even a mini timeout of time (mini toot) to the vastly different experiences each of the women had in the exact same lab. They were all there together. And that is exactly the purpose of a timeout of time, you know, pressing pause, if you will, in the middle of a play or like a time out in sports or, you know, some reflection so that you can discuss what's going on for everyone in the system and then you can strategize from there. And you know, imagine how much energy there is for real teams who are in the heat of a project that might not be going well, or where some people in the system are struggling or even suffering. So, the power of that timeout of time really does allow for everyone to step back, look at that bigger picture and see how others are experiencing the system from different spaces.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:54
It was intense, for sure. And I thought it might have been a little bit of a relief for everyone this week as we shift our energy from that intense conversation about life and systems overall to a deeper dive, specifically into the world of middles in those systems.
Marsha Clark 2:12
Yes, and as you're teeing up this week's episode, Wendi, I'm thinking that for our listeners who are new to the show and maybe didn't have a chance to catch Episode 113 which we called "Seeing Systems", you may want to listen to that first, listeners, since it really provides some important context for what we're going to be talking about today. And if someone is just jumping in today without that context, today's content is still going to be helpful, but that backstory will add some, I think, important foundational support.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 2:41
Great, great point. And speaking of context, I do think we need to set the stage for where this content today came from and why it's so relevant for our listeners.
Marsha Clark 2:51
Yes, so this content is what I would call a deeper dive into the role of middle and we introduce that in Episode 113. And it's adopted and adapted, if you will, both, from Barry Oshry's life work. And Barry is the founder of an organization called Power and Systems Inc. and he truly is a pioneer in the study of power and empowerment and in the development of educational programs that addresses these and other social systems issues.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 3:27
So, when you talk about being "In The Middle", which is the title of today's episode, what do you mean by that? Who or what is the middle?
Marsha Clark 3:35
All right. So, middle is both we call it a space in a system (and that's true of all systems) and it's also a condition of being in that system. So, you're going to hear me speak of middle or middleness interchangeably. And because it's a part of every system, I've also found that the majority of our program participants and my coaching clients find themselves "In the Middle" (the name of this episode) of their systems, organizational systems, quite frequently. So, that's part of the reason we're dedicating an entire episode to being in the middle and not only because it's such a pervasive experience for so many of our leaders, but also because there's so much power available to the middles, to that middle space, that we fail to leverage, really, both personally and organizationally. So, the power of this middle condition almost seems untapped and, therefore, the possibilities are great.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 4:34
So, you've used the term middle condition already a couple of times, and I'm assuming that's intentional.
Marsha Clark 4:41
Yes, that's being very intentional on my part. So, being in the middle of an organization system, it is a position. So, think about it in terms of a middle manager, for example. And middleness is not a position, it's the condition. So, it's a condition all of us experience at various times and in varying degrees in whatever position we're in. So, middleness is the condition in which you exist between two or more individuals or groups. And these groups often have different priorities, different goals, needs and wants and each of them exerts pressure on you to function on their behalf, their respective behalf. And so middleness is a potentially disempowering condition. So, you know, Barry's work has been around empowering you know, power and yet, there's this aspect of middleness being potentially disempowering and it tends to weaken individuals in that middle space. It can be confusing, muddling strategies, sapping a middle's energy, and it tends to weaken groups in the middle oftentimes alienating members from one another and really diminishing a middle's capacity to function as an integrated and effective unit. Yet, what we're here to talk about is there's another possibility.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 6:08
I'm reminded of what Kathy Edwards said in our "A Real TOOT" episode last week, that in her role as a middle in the power lab, she definitely experienced some of those same struggles and that sense of being caught trying to support needs and what maybe felt like competing needs of the elites and the immigrants. And it sounded very frustrating.
Marsha Clark 6:32
Well, yes, it can be. And I'm guessing many of our listeners out there who also find themselves in that middle space feel that same sense of frustration and even diminished capacity. But again, I want to emphasize there can be incredible possibility for that space. So, it can also be a potentially empowering system condition. And that's when it offers individuals and groups unique opportunities for both sensitive and effective influence over the course of system life. And I think having influence over an organizational system is huge. And which way it goes for you when you're in that middle condition, whether it's towards toward powerlessness or power, really depends on your ability to understand and manage the unique dynamics of that condition.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 7:25
You offer some very familiar conditions of what it feels like to be in that middle space or in that middle condition that I'm sure our listeners can relate to.
Marsha Clark 7:37
Yes, it's almost another one of our "You Are Here" map at the mall, kind of thing. So, you might be a middle kind of metric. And here's how you might know if you're occupying that middle space. So, middles tend to be involved in a hectic workplace. Anybody relate to that, right? Middles generally work long and hard throughout the duration of organizational system experiences. Middles are continually on the go, doing management work, going to meetings with tops and with bottoms, bearing messages to both parties, those bottoms and tops, structuring and restructuring the work, mediating differences, negotiating deals, and on and on the list goes. And so, in contrast to the relatively stationary existence of tops and bottoms, middles tend to be in perpetual motion. And, and that is one of my favorite quotes by Barry Oshry. He said, middles carry in their heads a seemingly endless list of items to be accomplished with everything from quick management meeting with tops, to setting up work for bottoms, back to tops on some other matter, an errand to run, paperwork to be cleaned up, a piece of business to be transacted on the run between one meeting and another." And as I said, the list goes on and on.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 9:04
Yeah, I think Tracie likes to call them organizational squirrels running back and forth.
Marsha Clark 9:09
Yes, that's the perfect mascot for the middle space. And it brings me to another condition of the middles and that's that the experience of being a middle tends to be a confusing one, right, because middles tend not to have clear and firm positions on issues. And that's because they're getting so many different perspectives and sides on it and your thinking can often get muddled as a middle. You listen to the tops and their position makes sense to you. You listen to bottoms and their position also makes sense. And so in the middle you can find yourself confused and ambivalent on a variety of issues making it harder to make up your mind, continually flip flopping between contradictory positions, or in attempting to be responsive to both tops and bottoms, assuming some compromise position that really doesn't satisfy either the tops or the bottoms.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 9:09
Yeah, so the squirrel analogy works there, too - running back and forth across the road in what looks like complete confusion.
Marsha Clark 10:13
Yes. So, and at least that's what it looks like to an outsider who doesn't understand, perhaps, what's going on behind the scenes. And that's related to another condition that middles experience frequently and that's ego deflation. So, as hard as middles work, they often don't receive any positive support or reinforcement or gratitude from those tops or bottoms that they're running in between. And so, as a middle you can feel that you're not measuring up to the standards that perhaps the tops and the bottoms are holding for you. And the words that tops and bottoms have used to describe them include confused (as a middle), uncertain, wishy-washy, unable or unwilling to take a stand, even powerless or weak. And then on the other hand, middles are also described as hard working, well meaning and trying to please. So, it's balancing those two. And according to the tops and the bottoms, the problems with middles lie less with your intentions and effort than with your competence.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 11:23
Wow. All of that just sounds really harsh. And unfair.
Marsha Clark 11:26
Well, that's right, it does and it's usually quite undeserved. I want to say that to every single person who's listening. And that's part of the problem is that we can often make unfair and harsh judgments about it. And as middles, we don't always do ourselves any favors because we can perpetuate some of those disempowering scenarios that are set up in the system. So, again, I'm going to go back to a typical condition of a middle is that they tend to believe that the significant action in the system lies with the tops and bottoms, not with themselves. So, we can point every other direction but not hold up that mirror. And, you know, middles have described themselves as like telephone wires, connecting tops and bottoms. And it's almost as if they're invisible people through whom the feelings and actions of tops and bottoms flow. So, I mean, just imagine, picture that, if you will. And so, despite these feelings of insignificance, middles generally feel a heavy responsibility for keeping the system together, for making it work and sometimes even for preventing tops and bottoms from destroying one another in the system as they make those harsh and unfair judgments.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 12:49
Right, right, right. I totally get that. So, when middles themselves don't see their role or their space as significant, they give others permission to see and believe the same thing.
Marsha Clark 13:00
That's right. Remember that quote, I think, is "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." Right. And, so again, which is also why middles tend to feel isolated and lonely in the system. You know, we all always hear the lonely at the top, but there's some loneliness in that middle space as well because they're not quite accepted by either the tops or the bottoms. And even the middles, you know, if there's a group of them as peer to peer, that can tend to be fractionated, or fractured, if you will, and middle group members tend to be, can often be non supportive of one another. And there's often even a great deal of interpersonal tension. And I what I relate to is the competition among them. And then if you add another of the middle conditions on top of that, you end up with a downward spiral.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 13:51
Which condition is that?
Marsha Clark 13:53
So, it's the tendency of middles to personalize their experiences, attributing whatever difficulties they're having to their own personal failings in skill, in character, even intelligence and competence. So, this belief that better people would be less confused, less ambivalent, less wishy-washy, and they would be better people who would be able to handle the situation more competently, more powerfully than that middle might.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 14:22
Wow. Okay, that's definitely resonating with me as I think back on some of my middle roles. It was so easy to think, 'Okay, this is me', and not even consider that it might be a condition of the system that I'm a part of.
Marsha Clark 14:37
Yeah, when I talk about, when we do the organization simulation that we've talked about and people are being critical of others in the space, I just say I could take any two or three of you, put you in the top space and the same thing would be happening. So, it's not the people in the space. I just want to say that loud and clear. And quite honestly, that's why this work has always been so fascinating to me ever since I learned about it and the system, the organizational system, their policies, their practices create these conditions, and we don't even realize it. And so, the final condition that I would share with our listeners here that is quite typical of the middle space is that middles tend not to take independent action. So, tops and middles are more likely to develop to develop game plans and strategies and to initiate actions based on those plans and strategies. And middles, by contrast, tend to be more reactive, acting in support of or against the plans of others or they're trying to reconcile the conflicting game plans of tops and bottoms. And so as a middle, you don't always develop a perspective of your own and one which, quite honestly, is independent of the perspectives of either the tops or the bottoms.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 15:56
It's so true. I mean, bottoms coalesce, they unite and tops come together to build strategy, but middles don't unite as middles, do they?, I mean, they're too busy. They might collaborate, but even then, when they do have time to do that, while they're busy running from one side of the road to the other, I mean, when do they have time to do that?
Marsha Clark 16:18
Well, and, Wendi, that's the power of this work - to share with those who find themselves in that middle space that not only do they have power but they might actually be, and certainly from my humble opinion, in the most powerful spot in an organization if only we could recognize it when we're in it and use that space strategically.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 16:41
Well, as usual, you have a number of reflection questions proposed for the book, "Expanding Your Power" and I want to include some of that here that I think our listeners could benefit from. So, will you set up the reflection exercise that you introduced earlier in this chapter?
Marsha Clark 16:59
Yes. So, it's an opportunity for our listeners to get a sense of their own middle condition experience. So, here's what I invite our listeners to do. Look at your calendar for the last 30 days. And I think most of us live by our calendar, right, whatever it says - it says go to this meeting, go to that meeting, or whatever. And so, as you look at those past 30 days, what percentage of your time was spent in a middle space? So, there was a top in the room, there were bottoms in the room, and you sat in the middle of those two. So, think of it as a condition where your boss, a top, has given you the middle an assignment or ask a question. And as a middle, you've engaged the bottoms on your team to fulfill the assignment, conduct the research, develop the options, build the deck, whatever it is that the assignment called for. So, as you look back on your calendar for the last 30 days, how clear were you on what to do as it related to how to complete the assignment? Were there mixed messages? Were there unclear requirements? Were your bottoms asking questions or requesting resources to complete the work? Were there times when you felt isolated or alone? And just, you know, make some notes describing the scenario. And then this, to me, is one of the more important questions: What role did you hold for yourself as you considered that situation? And then how did you respond to the questions, to the assignment, to whatever all the pieces and parts of it might have been? And if any of these, you know, if this story sounds familiar to you, you might be a middle.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 18:48
Wow. Perfect. Okay, so that lack of integration of middles in a system definitely seems like a huge missed opportunity, as you've pointed out. But why does that happen?
Marsha Clark 19:01
I think that's a great question, Wendi. We refer to it, or Barry refers to it, as disintegration of the middle because it actually has a visual and visceral kind of overtone to it, right. So, think of something that's disintegrating. It's like it's dissolving and it's quickly ceasing to exist in that way. And that's the danger associated with losing the power of the middle space, or disregarding the power that it can hold. So, there's a number of contributing factors about why this middle space is disintegrating. And so, the first one I'll share with our listeners is pressure from tops and bottoms. The more disintegrated middles are, the more confused, uncertain and weak you feel and are seen to be and therefore the more likely tops and bottoms are to increase the pressure on you to bring you quote unquote, "into line", right, to get you on board. So, as this pressure from tops and or bottoms is increased, the more confused, uncertain and weak middles become. And I find it really paradoxical that those tops and bottoms who want to gain the support of middles are more likely to succeed by decreasing rather than increasing the pressure on them and really by acknowledging the special tensions that are present in the middle condition and doing more to support that middle.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 20:31
So, it's a vicious circle, cycle.
Marsha Clark 20:33
Yes, it is, and what I often refer to as an incredibly ineffective reinforcing loop, right? We're reinforcing the wrong things. And, you know, we also had already mentioned another of the contributing factors in this disintegration, which is the hectic work pace. Integration is more likely to develop when you're able to step back from the system periodically, to remove yourself from the ongoing pressures, to rest, to take a detached look at yourself or others and the system as a whole. And getting out of the workflow from time to time is one element of this. So, having a space of your own to retreat to and conduct business is another. But the more you allow yourself to be carried along in the frantic flow of activities, being ever responsive to others, putting out those fires, bearing messages back and forth and up and down, cleaning up paperwork and all those administrative tasks that you might have, really and truly, the less opportunity there is for you to develop your own independent perspective on the system and to develop your own independent action strategies based on the power of information you have internal to you.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 21:51
And I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into that cycle. You know, I feel ineffective because the system is ineffective. So, I work harder, I dig in more, I lean in more. But that may not be the most productive strategy.
Marsha Clark 22:07
Yeah. Sometimes leaning in is the worst thing because...
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 22:10
Exactly. You're just reinforcing the badness.
Marsha Clark 22:13
Yes, that's right. So, it's not a productive strategy, and in fact, is likely counterproductive. So, middles need to do the work of the middleness. And in order to prevent some of that personal disintegration, you've got to pay special attention to your personal boundaries, to control your own involvement in the flow of work, let people do their work, which is theirs to do. And periodically shut off your responsiveness to others. This is to set some boundaries and say no and attend more often to yourself in both self care and to develop and protect your own personal space.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 22:51
So, a little bit of our own "slow down to speed up" medicine here.
Marsha Clark 22:55
Yes, that's absolutely right. And, you know, it's a perfect example of when that philosophy would be critical. Not only does it support the development of healthy personal boundaries, but it allows middles the time and space to gain or perhaps regain the perspective they need to work objectively and maintain their independence of thoughts that's so important to that middle space. And again, part of what perpetuates this disintegration is that the very definition of the middle role creates and reinforces expectations of everyone in the system that middle will be there in the middle, the glue of the system holding everything together. And the role is positioned such that you're supposed to be emissaries of others, extensions of others, negotiators for others, buffers for others. You know, such role definition encourages middles to see situations more from the perspective of others and less from your own perspective. And such definitions really encourage middles to act in the interest of specific others rather than in the interest of the system as a whole. And that's part of why we're sharing this today is so that when you recognize that for what it is, you're still going to be a connector, but you can do it more thoughtfully and intentionally.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 24:17
Exactly. Well, I'm going to ask you to repeat that last part again because for me, it's a very important point that could get lost here.
Marsha Clark 24:26
Yeah. The way the role of middle is defined in most systems encourages them to see situations more from the perspective of others and less from their own perspective. And that reinforces middles to act in the interest of specific others rather than the interest of the system as a whole.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 24:47
That idea of seeing the system as a whole is such a big deal, I think, for the power of the middle space.
Marsha Clark 24:55
I completely agree, Wendi. And middles and when we're in that middle space we need to recognize that middleness is more than a telephone wire, right, between tops and bottoms. It is its own legitimate position within the system. And there's a legitimate perspective that goes with middleness that is different than the perspectives of tops and bottoms and that there's a legitimacy to independent actions in the middle, and actions that may not be perceived by either tops or bottoms as particularly responsive but which in fact do serve the best interest of the system.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 25:32
This nature of being siloed and isolated feels so familiar and makes me realize how lonely it is in that middle space in organizations.
Marsha Clark 25:42
Yes, it is. It's a lonely space, if we choose that, right. I mean, because, again, it's a condition that perpetuates this kind of loneliness and it's almost, this is one of the points absence of a support group. So, mental illness is a potentially disintegrating condition both for the group of middles as well as the individuals that make up the middles. And when the dynamics of middleness go unrecognized or unmanaged, then the middle group members tend to drift apart to become increasingly independent of one another, more isolated, more interpersonally, distant and more competitive and less interested in one another's work, therefore, collaboration doesn't seem, you know, practical, and certainly then results in less personal support, if you will. And also, as you just said, Wendi, a common business phrase that you use to describe the disintegration or these are things we've talked about in the past is operating in silos, and an each middles vertical functional team operates independently. And it's that lack of peer group support that contributes to the personal disintegration of middles. And given that defusing dynamic of middles, middles tend to work harder than bottoms and tops to develop that effective support system. It's not going to naturally, you know, come together or be created. And so minimally, a strong middle team provides each middle with the emotional support they need when they find themselves in trying situations. And beyond that, it provides a setting for sharing and sorting through information about the system, so, for stepping back from the ongoing work and using that macro view or that high level view and the data that you garner from that to develop a larger, broader, deeper perspective on system processes and issues and really for developing more coherent middle strategies.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 27:53
Yeah, as I'm listening to you, I'm reflecting back across my own career and wondering why I ever agreed to take on a middle management role because, I mean, I think I'm being flooded with memories that were quite miserable.
Marsha Clark 28:08
Well and the way we've described it thus far, and yet, we have to deal with our reality, right, so, it does sound pretty miserable. And, you know, especially when a middle group is disintegrated as it operates in the system. And just the the act of disintegration, it is a painful condition. And that chronic disintegration or disintegrating experiences can really threaten one's emotional and physical well being and, you know, middles get burned out. And the personal dramas of organizational middles can be examined from the perspective of the choices you make as to how to cope with the existence of that possible disintegration.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 28:49
I do want to say that we aren't just going to talk about the challenges of being disintegrated middle space today. We are going to offer some suggestions on how to integrate and work out solutions. So, for our listeners who are having all of their buttons pushed, you know, for the first 30 minutes of this, please stick with us.
Marsha Clark 29:11
Yes. Again, in some ways, we're describing the break down in order to get to the break through if you if you can think of it in those terms. And I do think it's important for our listeners to hear that these conditions that they're, they may be experiencing and likely are experiencing, are pervasive and not personal to them. And so, to let each of our listeners know, they're not alone in the loneliness, right? And that there are strategies for working through these predictable conditions in the systems of which they're a part. And, you know, Wendi, I think about remember when we talked about impostor syndrome and it's like, women are like, "Oh my gosh, I thought it was me. I thought I was crazy. . ." - all that kind of stuff. And they said, "Oh, but if it has a name, it must be legitimate." Well, this is legitimate because it's middleness.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 29:58
Marsha Clark 29:59
It has a name.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 30:00
Yes. And all of this is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Marsha Clark 30:05
Yeah. And it's not a train!
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 30:07
Yeah, exactly. And so, now that we've said all that, I do think it would be helpful to cover at least a few of the common reactions that people display, people who operate in the middle space, so our listeners can begin to diagnose their own responses to disintegration.
Marsha Clark 30:23
Yes, so, I identified three common reactions and then I'm going to share a quick reflection exercise so our listeners can imagine that. So, the first common response from disintegration is burning out and staying stuck in the middle. And you continue to function from that stuck space. As extensions of both tops and bottoms, you try to be responsive to both. You try to be fair to both and to function really is a buffer, whether it be giving air cover or ensuring the boss you're on top of it. It can go that kind of way. So, you work very hard. You may remain confused and uncertain about a variety of issues and yet you continue to carry the burden of keeping the system together. So, you continue being seen by others in the system as hard working, well intentioned, but not particularly effective. And you continue to work under these conditions until you're no longer able to function to either your own or other standards. So, you burn out and that breakdown can be physically, it can be emotionally, and to it's extreme, you can be transferred or fired or you decide "I quit".
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 31:41
Exactly. I wonder how many people burn out at work and they don't even see this as the reason why.
Marsha Clark 31:47
Yes, I think because we are often we have system blindness, right, that that's a great point. You know, burnout for middles occurs when, at its most practical point, you're unable to resolve those disintegrated conditions. And in your role as hard working, fair and responsive extensions of and buffers for both tops and bottoms, you maintain or you worsen this disintegrated condition until you just break down. And this is where it's so, I'm gonna say, heartbreaking to me because the great tragedy of burnout is that it is often experienced by the middle, and by others around them, as a personal failure. And the treatments, if offered, are personally oriented. And all of these treatments, however beneficial they might be, really just reinforce your greatest fear that the problem lies somehow in you and that if you took better care of yourself the burnout would not occur.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 32:44
That is heartbreaking.
Marsha Clark 32:46
Well, it is and burnout, to me, you know, may in fact be related to some sort of personal weakness, but it's not only that. I mean, maybe we could have been more organized, maybe we, you know, there's a few of those things. But the vast majority of it is a condition of the system and a set of interpersonal phenomena that are the consequences of, I'll call it, unrecognized and unmanaged middleness in addition to whatever personal thing we may need to develop or work on. It tends to be exaggerated by those dynamics. And then system weaknesses tend to multiply personal weaknesses. So, the solution to burnout, along with taking better care of yourself, involves understanding and managing that dynamic of middleness.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 33:37
I love that we're helping people see that there are other external factors and that the burden isn't all on me, individually.
Marsha Clark 33:46
Yes, I do too, Wendi. I'm glad we can bring this and I think it can be a huge relief for people when they recognize the impact that the system is playing here. And I just want to say I've done this work, shared various ways of delivering this information around the world. And it is a universal truth. That's the thing because when you keep replacing the person and yet the condition and the situation continues, you know there's a systemic issue there, not an individual issue. And so, I want to bring another interesting response to the stress of disintegration. And it's what's called sliding up and down, sliding up and sliding down. And some middles resolve the disintegration of middleness by getting out of the middle.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 34:38
Okay, what do you mean by leaving the middle?
Marsha Clark 34:40
All right. So, it's not an actual job change. I want to be clear about that. Your role is still technically in that middle space, but rather than being extensions of both tops and bottoms and being equally responsive to both, you align yourself with one or the other.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 34:58
Ah, okay, so you choose a side.
Marsha Clark 35:01
Yes, so sliding up I side with top, sliding down I side with the bottoms. And so, the choice to align yourself upward or downward, it may be made quickly and clearly at the outset of the relationship or it may be a subtle and gradual drift over time in one direction or the other. And in either case, sliding up or sliding down, the dilemma of disintegration is at least partially resolved, some tension is relieved and such middles are no longer in the middle. You've basically redefined your role and you now see yourself as an extension of either a top or a bottom, but not a both. And, you know, under these conditions, there's less confusion, less uncertainty, less wishy washyness of behavior, fewer doubts about yourself. So, it's like organizational lines are more clearly drawn. By sliding up or sliding down, you're very clear about your position, you know where you stand. You either adopt that top space stand or the bottom space stand. And as we will see, you do so at the sacrifice of middle power. So, at best, you now enjoy the power potential of tops or bottoms,and the unique power of middleness is lost to you.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 35:01
Okay, I knew there'd be a trick or a sleight of hand in here somewhere. It sounded too easy. So, we relieve the tension but we lose the unique power or perspective of being in the middle.
Marsha Clark 36:32
Right, and not to mention the risk of appearing redundant because you aren't actually officially in the role of top or bottom so why are you being you if you're duplicating and why is the organization paying you if you're duplicating someone else's job?
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 36:46
Okay, great points. All right. So, if those were two reactions, then what's the third?
Marsha Clark 36:54
All right. So, the third common response is becoming what might be seen as a bureaucrat due to your non-responsiveness. We're a clog, right, we're a log jam, if you will. And so, some middles resolve their dilemmas of disintegration by becoming non responsive to both the tops and the bottoms and you see yourself neither as extensions of nor in service to either the tops or the bottoms. And, in fact, your tendency is to define both of these groups, tops and bottoms, as antagonists to be resisted rather than supported. And so, your tendency is to withhold rather than to provide service. So, you offer little on your own and you even become resistant to requests from others. And you create some buffers around yourself to discourage intrusions from tops and bottoms.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 37:47
Okay. I've known people like this in past organizations and I do not understand how they pull this off.
Marsha Clark 37:54
Right, or how they get away with it for so long. So, it goes back to that idea or definition of a bureaucrat, right. They buffer themselves by generating complex procedures and evaluation mechanisms. And all of this discourages approaches from tops and bottoms, all of which makes access to middle resources complex, painful, costly. People will do anything rather than work for that person or they look at the complexity of the system and go, "What are we trying to do here?" And so this mesh of bureaucratic barriers and procedures and complexities is just to avoid the dilemmas of disintegration. And, you know, the problems of doubt, confusion and uncertainty are minimized because we're doing it my way, you know, kind of thing, but not in service. So, with this approach as a middle you're clear about where you stand and what you do and don't do and you have your own space and others come to you if they must, right - only when they must - and you have fewer doubts about your own competencies as such a middle. And if there are problems in the system, you're more likely to see the fault is lying with the tops and bottoms and with their unreasonable requests and demands, with their inability or unwillingness to cope with and manage any kind of sensible bureaucratic procedures.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 39:17
Okay. I feel like I just witnessed the birth of bureaucracy, but yet, it just makes a lot of sense now.
Marsha Clark 39:24
Yeah. And I also believe (this is just my opinion) that that is an unconscious attempt by middles to bring value to the system. And this non-responsiveness, though, to both tops and bottoms, it resolves the dilemmas of disintegration for the middles and it creates a power base for middles because now they control the resources that others need access to and they also control the means of access.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 39:53
So, now you're gonna go through a few reflection questions on this state and these experiences feel very personal to me, and so I'm really looking forward to you sharing with our listeners.
Marsha Clark 40:08
So, the first reflection question is: "When was the last time you, our listeners, experienced burnout?" Just think back to a project you were on or a task or assignment that you had been given. And then the next question is: "How might your burnout have been connected to you being in the middle space?" And then the third is: "When was the last time you found yourself caught up in or even creating bureaucracy or potential bureaucracy?" And that, and I want to be really clear, it's not bringing order to chaos by developing a process or a blueprint or a framework. It's the complexities of that are making it harder than it has to be. So, I want to be really clear about that distinction. And then the last question is: "How do you relate to bureaucracy, really, as a coping mechanism for this condition of middleness?
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 41:07
You know, and I'm realizing how much I love a good rule to help manage the chaos in my world. I'm not so good at following other people's rules, but I love the control that I feel when I set rules. And so, now I have to explore how much of that is in response to any middle disintegration that might be going on for me.
Marsha Clark 41:29
Well, I think that's great awareness, Wendi, and I'll take our listeners back if they listened to our episode on the FIRO-B around control. Is it my personal need for control or is it my middleness need for control because those are two kinds of different things.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 41:46
Exactly. Okay, so we've talked around this idea now multiple times. So, let's dive into the core concept that there is unique power in that middle space and that's one of the primary reasons why we want to protect it. So, Marsha, what is so unique and powerful about that middle space?
Marsha Clark 42:07
Yeah, so I think it's a bit ironic, but the power of middleness comes from the diffusion characteristics of the middle space - the fact that you are out there in the system, that you have contact with tops and bottoms and others in the system, and that you have the opportunity to see and interact with and understand the various sub worlds out there that exist within the larger world of the system as a whole. So, in some sense, the greater the diffusion of the position, the greater its potential for power. So, if you're able to stay in the middle, to diffuse without disintegrating, you're in a position to respond sensitively to system issues because of the amount and the nature of information that's available to you about various parts of the system and the system as a whole. And you're in a position to be proactive as well as responsive to influence tops and bottoms and to influence the way tops and bottoms interact with one another. So, just pause for a moment and take that in. In this middle space, you are a rich repository possessing valuable information from all across the system. It's like you are the database, right? You are the repository. The challenge for you as a middle is to be responsive to tops and bottoms and yet independent of them. So, you're not sliding up, you're not sliding down, you're not an extension of them. You're independent. And yet you understand the perspective of tops and bottoms while at the same time clarifying and acting on your own middle perspective. And that is to defuse the system while at the same time remaining independent and integrated entities within the system. So, it's using information differently and independently. So, responsiveness is a central feature of your middle position and it is often what middles are hired to do. So, by developing an independent position for yourself, you're able to diffuse without disintegrating and you're able to stay in the middle and use the special, I would call it, opportunities of that position.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 44:24
So, the huge organizational opportunity for middles is to integrate intentionally, right?
Marsha Clark 44:30
That's exactly right. And that's why we have now hammered into everyone, you know, it isn't natural in systems for the integration to occur. So, the middles have to operate against the natural order of the system in order to integrate as middles. And so, when the middles operate as systems integrators, they are leveraging and exerting system power through the two unique functions that they play in the system. One is a local function being experts in their particular area, and the other is systemic.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 45:06
Okay, go a little deeper on the difference between those two.
Marsha Clark 45:10
All right. The local function of middles is to service or manage specific system units. So, the function can be performed individually, and the systemic function of middles is to integrate the system or the subsystems. And this function can only be performed collectively. So, system integration is an appropriate function for middles and you're in the best position to do it. It empowers you to function as system integrators. And you're disempowered when you don't take that on, right. And so, in order to integrate the system, middles must integrate themselves. So, let me just say one thing. Think about my local is I manage my marketing function, or I manage the sales function, or I manage the legal function or the supply chain function or the technical function, the engineering department, whatever. Those are local things. But collectively, we're managing the enterprise. Does that make sense when I say it that way?
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 46:17
Okay. So, how exactly can middles integrate within a system?
Marsha Clark 46:21
Alll right. So, the integrating group is a collection of middle peers within a system - so, like the heads of all those departments I just mentioned. And when this group performs its integrating function, they meet and work as middles without the boss. And I think that's an important piece, too, because we're not glomming on, sliding up to the boss or glomming on or sliding down to the bottoms. So, the middle group meetings are separate from staff meetings that they might have with their boss, and they have a different function and are likely to have some different meeting dynamics, if you will. Meetings with the boss can heighten issues of competitiveness among the middles, right, because they're shooting for that boss's role one day - dynamics that may be present but less obstructive when middles meet alone. And meetings with the boss also tend to suppress problems that middles are experiencing because they don't want to look weak or ineffective in their roles. And meetings with the boss tend to promote dependence rather than independence amongst the middles. So, the boss tells you what to do and you submit, you resist, you rebel, or you bring your problems to the boss and he or she, quote, unquote, "takes care of them", right, or not, but generally working to take care of them. So, the exclusion of the boss, it's not an anti authoritarian act. So, I'm not rebelling but it's a structural arrangement promoting the independence and the empowerment of the middles and it makes it possible for middles to function as true systems integrators.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 47:56
Is it ever appropriate to invite the boss to these meetings?
Marsha Clark 48:01
Well, I think there are some times when you might want to do that, but I would do it with very specific goals in mind because the boss and others may be invited to participate when their resources are required by the group. And I want to keep in mind the cautions I just covered where the boss can take over, right?
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 48:20
Absolutely makes sense. So, integration of middles is key to a highly effective organizational system. What are some specific activities or strategies that middles need to do to support this integration?
Marsha Clark 48:36
This may seem a little over simplified, but the first step is that they need to commit to meeting with each other and holding that commitment sacrosanct, right? We're going to prioritize it and not schedule things over it. And remember that the system every single minute of every single day is going to try to pull you apart. So, you're operating against the natural forces of the system in order to hold this commitment to meet with one another as middles. And as part of those meetings, you'll share and leverage the intelligence of each other where you've been out into the various parts of the system and you're bringing that intelligence and information back. And you know, the potential, this intelligence pool, if you will, for a middle group, it's considerable, you know, especially when middles are taking, you know, real strategic advantage of their positions as they operate out in the system. And so collectively, you often have access to more system wide information than any other system parts with whom you have contact and that includes the tops and recognizing that this potential can only be realized if you share your information with one another.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 49:47
You introduce different levels of integration for middles in your draft of your second book. So, will you cover that for everyone here?
Marsha Clark 49:56
You bet. So, middles can choose to integrate at a number of levels and these range from light involvement with one another to heavy commitment to one another. And the choice of level of integration, it has the implications for the system power of the middle group as well as for the personal power and individual freedom of the middle group members. And so, the level starts at zero - level zero at the lowest as you would expect - and it goes to level five at the highest.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 50:24
Okay, so what's going on at level zero? Is that even integration?
Marsha Clark 50:29
Technically no, therefore zero, right, other than the deliberate decision to not integrate. So that's the point of that at level zero. So, at this level middles choose to function as individual operators and not to integrate with one another at all. And the personal and system power of such middles is quite low, and individual freedom is high. And that's because each middle is free to act as he or she chooses, with no input or constraint from other middles.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 51:03
Okay, so it's good to know that they at least collaborated on the decision to not integrate.
Marsha Clark 51:08
That's right. That's right. And it's not a default level representing middles that simply don't integrate because they don't think of it or they don't even know how, you know, but rather, as you said, it was a deliberate decision. And so that brings us to the next level - level one. And this level is focused on information sharing, and middles at this level do nothing more than share information. So, you know, each one, each middle simply put into that common pool the intelligence that they've gathered from his or her contacts with the system. They don't analyze that information. They don't make decisions based on it. And, you know, basically, each middle is free to use that intelligence or that information as he or she chooses.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 51:53
That seems like a pretty common approach. "Tell me what's happening in your part of the world, but don't mess with mine" thinking.
Marsha Clark 52:00
Yes, that's right. That's right. And that, my friends, my listeners, are how silos are born or perhaps solidify.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 52:01
Oh, my God, yes. Okay, so then what's the difference about level two?
Marsha Clark 52:12
All right. At level two, middles are assimilating information. So, they're using that pooled intelligence as a basis for what I call systems diagnosis. They're asking questions like what trends are we seeing? What system wide problems are developing because whether it's in marketing or sales or operations or engineering or whatever, we've got some commonality. We're seeing trends or themes. And, you know, admittedly, at level two, middle commitment to one another is still pretty minimal. And yet they jointly work on system diagnosis trying to identify the problem. But there's no real consensual decisions that are made. And again, each middle is free to use the diagnosis as he or she chooses.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 53:01
Okay, I see this often as well.
Marsha Clark 53:03
Right. And I think for many organizations, they consider that level to be collaboration because they're diagnosing or assessing issues, identifying themes and trends across their teams regardless of whether they're addressing those same problems, issues, barriers collectively.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 53:20
Exactly. Well, at least I guess it's a first step towards collaboration. Maybe.
Marsha Clark 53:26
I agree, I agree. And it could very well be exactly what they need. And, you know, I just always want this middle group to be sure they're aware of even more possibilities of higher levels of integration.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 53:38
Okay, fair enough. So, we just discussed level two. What's level three?
Marsha Clark 53:43
So, level three is mutual consultation. So, this is where the middles use one another as resources to consult on problems that individual middles are facing in their servicing or managing functions. And that then leads to level four. So, and that is joint planning and strategizing. So, this is where identifying problems that cut across all of the middles areas of responsibilities, and then developing agreement amongst the middles as to how these are going to be handled. And I think this is really important because then you have some consistency that can also be viewed as fairness, that one group is not getting something that the other group's not getting because they're working on it together. And these middles agree to support one another, and, most importantly, to follow through on those commitments.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 54:35
Okay. Now I'm seeing some real collaboration kicking in, mutual support and problem solving. Okay, so we're looking for and also they're looking for ways that their concerns are connected or interrelated.
Marsha Clark 54:48
That's right. That's the beauty of that, right? So, this is where the synergy of truly working together can come into play. So, obviously it's going to take some time and you have to build some mutual trust and respect and also acknowledging that there's a vulnerability involved in sharing what might not be working in your part of the system. And you know, leaders aren't always reinforced positively when they're sharing their broken pieces, right, in their part of the system or their problems.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 55:16
Vulnerability is a good word to use here. And I can see why some leaders would be hesitant to expose anything from their silo that might make them or their leadership chain look bad.
Marsha Clark 55:30
That's right. You nailed it. And not every leader is a fan of this type of exposure and transparency because they see that as a failure. And I just also want to point out, if you're working in a low trust environment, this is an even bigger challenge, right? So, the last thing in a low trust environment that they want is for their middles to be out there sharing those challenges, barriers, options. It's really an awful Catch 22.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 55:58
Exactly. I get that. Okay, so level five.
Marsha Clark 56:02
So, the final level of middle integration, level five, is where we refer to creating a power bloc. And this is where middles organize themselves specifically as a power bloc within the system. And so they're identifying common grievances or problems, common needs and conditions that they want changed, and then collectively developing bargaining positions and pursuing tactics aimed at bringing about those recommended or desired conditions.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 56:36
Have you ever seen this happen in an organization?
Marsha Clark 56:39
I have. You know, I have a personal experience with it. It's the best one that I can think of is we had something called a corporate initiative five. And it was about creating a different kind of culture at EDS. And it was a matter of a big group of middles had gone to a program at London Business School. And while there, they had identified problems that were consistent throughout. So, it was staged, if you will, in a training program for them to identify common themes that they were seeing, identifying, diagnosing. And then their solution to that was coming back into the organization and recommending some things to create a different kind of culture. And they did it from the middle space as a collective power bloc.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 57:36
That's really interesting. Okay, so, are there any downsides to middles integrating?
Marsha Clark 57:43
Yeah, Wendi, I'm not sure I'd call them downsides, but I would offer them to our listeners as watch outs, you know, danger, danger. So, you know, generally, the higher the level of integration, the greater the potential for individual and system power. So that's, you know, so the first watch out is that although middle groups might simply jump to organize themselves as a power bloc and truly focus on improving your own condition within the system without really concern for the consequences that your demands have for, dare I say, system survival and growth. So it's make sure you're doing it in service to the larger good. The second watch out is that middles move toward high levels of integration and members may feel more constraints on what they would consider their individual freedom. And last, the group develops an agreed upon mission and diagnosis of system wide issues and strategies for change. And members might rightfully expect support and consistency from one another and that can, depending on the group of middles, lead to some unmet expectations or disappointments if all middles are not fully in, you know, all on board.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 58:57
I can see why those situations are worth being aware of as possible outcomes. But I will also say the advantages of integration feel like they're worth the potential risks.
Marsha Clark 59:10
Well, I agree with that, Wendi. And and even before we leave this part of the content, I do want to mention that integration is one side of the middle space dynamic to consider. The middles are integrating the system or the subsystems because every big organization has subsystems too and they're doing this integration by moving back and forth between diffusing out to the system parts that you individually service or manage, and then coming back together to integrate with one another. And I offer this as kind of an analogy. It's like breathing, right? We need to both inhale and exhale. So, the inhale is when the managers come together and they work together to get alignment and movement. And then the exhale is what we are referring to as the defusing going out into their parts of the organization to gather intelligence.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:00:01
Okay, talk more about defusing.
Marsha Clark 1:00:04
So, when middles are in the defusing phase, and these are kind of bulleted points, if you will, they're functioning independently of one another and each middle services or manages the specific system parts for which they are responsible. The third bullet is each middle attempts to influence these parts. And the last bullet is that each middle collects information about those parts. And the information they collect is what are the parts of the system need? What difficulties are people experiencing? What are people's different attitudes or thoughts, feelings about what's happening? What events of significance have occurred? What problem is each middle experiencing and servicing or managing they're part of the system? So, when in the middle, you're diffusing in two different functions. You're influencing the parts that you're servicing and managing, and your data gathering regarding the life of these parts. And I would offer to our listeners noting that when middles are diffusing, they generally have contacts with a variety of system parts - subordinates, clients, other middles, tops, various stakeholder groups - so that opportunities for influence and data gathering extend to all of those different parts of the system and subsystems.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:01:24
I love that visual. It's like the middles are the lungs of the organization pulling in disparate information from outside or separate groups, processing it, turning it into something useful, and then sending it back out to the rest of the body of the organization to get work done.
Marsha Clark 1:01:41
Yes, you know, I thought about the breathing in and breathing out. I love the lungs, the lungs of the organization. It's a great metaphor. And it is, it's a combination of both the respiratory and the circulatory system. So, the two primary functions of diffusing and integrating really strengthen one another. And the more effectively that middle groups can integrate with one another when you're sharing and assimilating information, the more strengthened each individual middle is in carrying out your service and managing functions. And middles feel more informed. You have a better sense of the connections among the system parts. You really have systems sight when I think about that, and you feel more secure having a solid database for your decisions and actions because of this collected information. And you feel more in harmony with the other middles as a whole. And the more skilled middles become at gathering intelligence from the field, the richer those contributions can be and you're able to make as a group with these integrating activities. And so, when middles function as systems integrators moving back and forth between diffusing out to the system and coming back to integrate with one another, you're able to function as a significant entity within the system. And it's an independent entity and even functioning at the lower levels of integration, including the sharing and assimilating information, and have some major impacts on the system and on individual middles.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:03:14
What a powerful concept - I mean, really leverage the unique position of middles in the system to activate the entire system.
Marsha Clark 1:03:23
That's right. And that's why we've dedicated an entire chapter in the book and here we have an entire episode on this "In The Middle" space.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:03:31
I can see why. So, so much great information today about what it's like to be in that middle space and some strategies for what to do to gain the most benefit from being in the middle. So, Marsha, is there anything else you want to make sure our listeners know about middle integration today before we wrap up?
Marsha Clark 1:03:50
There is, Wendi. And I want our listeners to recognize that for as valuable as middle integration seems for both the individual leader and the organization, there are some powerful reasons why middles don't do it and, you know, besides what we've already touched on. In many organizations, middles are hired, evaluated and rewarded as individual contributors. And so, their jobs have been defined as services and managers of other systems units and not as systems integrators. So, it's as if our processes, practices, policies really take away from this power, the power of the middle. And it's often viewed as something outside the job description to, in fact, diffuse and integrate. And I often hear the phrase 'it's above my paygrade' versus really understanding the power that I have in that middle space. And then another typical obstacle is that many tops require, I would describe it as, an extensive re-education program before they'll allow and encourage the middle group integration, because in my mind tops need to recognize the potential value to the system of having strong and independent middle groups that really function as that systems integrator. And if tops recognize the value to the system of middle integration, they might not support something that has the potential for creating new power blocs within the system. So, concerns for control might supersede concerns for coping and prospecting, if you will. And then finally, the empowerment of another group also raises concerns regarding one's own power or powerlessness. And for example, the empowerment of bottoms that menaces powerless middles. You know, would not the empowerment of middles also menace powerless tops?
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:05:49
These are all great points that I hadn't even thought of, I mean, the power struggle of it all.
Marsha Clark 1:05:54
Yeah, and it's very real, as most of us know, because we've lived it at some point or in some form.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:06:01
Even if we couldn't name it.
Marsha Clark 1:06:03
That's right. That's right. That's right. And, you know, we don't, we didn't know it existed, we don't understand it, we resist it, and we can even fear it. And then I also want to just say the middles themselves may not see the value of integrating because of all system groups, middles are the least oriented towards integration with one another. And sometimes middles appear to choose isolation over integration. And those middle group members tend to have little interest in or zest for that mutual collaboration. And relationships amongst the middle group can be marked by interpersonal tension and I keep going back to competition because they're vying for a bigger job, bigger role. And then middle group members also can have little interest in forming a closer and stronger group. It's like one more thing on their to do list, if you will. And they can doubt the possibility that forming such a group is important and question the potential payoff that it would have for themselves or the system. And, again, part of why we're offering this is that we need to understand these dynamics whether you're a top, middle or bottom, and middles being the most formidable barriers can be a part of blocking that integration. And in order to answer that question, we need to step back once again and look at those middle dynamics and the middle experience in the way that we look at it in our organizational lives.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:07:37
Exactly. Great stuff today, Marsha, as always. Thank you for being such a great guide and mentor through these murky waters of seeing systems, and especially understanding the unique challenges and opportunities in that middle space. So, we'll be wrapping up this series on organizational systems next week with our episode on "Mavens in The Middle" and I can't wait to look at life in the middle through the eyes of two strong women leaders who thrive in that middle space of their organization.
Marsha Clark 1:08:11
Yeah, I think it brings to life some of the things we've talked about today. And I just want to acknowledge for our listeners I know we talk about disintegration and dissolving and silos and diffusing and integration and all the pros and cons and ins and outs and watch outs and so on and benefits, too. So, I appreciate you staying with us. And we are going to include this in book two. And I think sometimes, for me, at least, it's hard to hear so much of this stuff so we're going to give you that reference in the book with a dedicated chapter. And I hope that that can continue to provide further clarity around all of this. And I also want to say if you have a need for more information or more clarity before that book comes out, give us a call, let us know what we can do to help you because I find little attention being paid to organizational system dynamics. And that's what we've tried to bring you not only in the book, but in this mini series on organizational systems. So, let us know how we can help you individually and then, of course, potentially collectively for your enterprise or your organization.
Wendi McGowan-Ellis 1:09:22
Well, thank you, listeners, again for joining us today on this journey of authentic, powerful leadership. Please continue to download, subscribe and share this podcast from wherever you like to listen. Visit Marsha's website at marshaclarkandassociates.com to discover some links to tools and resources we talked about today and stay up to date on everything in Marsha's world including her next book that's coming out.
Marsha Clark 1:09:51
All right, and let me just say again, thank you, listeners, for sticking with us today. These are not easy topics and we can have a lot of system blindness, if you will. And yet once you really kind of grasp these concepts and recognize these conditions for what they are, no matter what space you're operating from you can be more effective and, dare I say, more powerful and influential, not only in your functional role but also as a contributor for the enterprise as a whole. And none of us can do this alone. You know, it's an organizational system. It's made up of people everywhere, and we want to be there for one another. And so, as always, "Here's to women supporting women!"
Transcribed by https://otter.ai