Simon Terry

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From Safety to Safer: Middle Management’s Dangerous Transition

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Safety is a common conversation, explicitly or implicitly, in the halls of middle management. Change agents among the ranks of middle managers experience conversations about the need for safety and the dangers of change on a daily basis. Safety is the focus because there are many for whom safety means the preservation of status, roles and resources. We need to move from safety to making our organisations safer for a world of rapid networked change.

The Wrong Kind of Safety

Ask enough middle managers and you will find that there are definitions of safety which involve elements of the following:

  • Ownership: a clearly defined area of responsibility and resources that can be controlled tightly
  • Knowledge is Power: a set of skills, capabilities or knowledge that is closely guarded and relatively unique in the organisation
  • Hierarchical Power: relationships of dependence with management above dependent on the department’s functional expertise and the team below dependent on sponsorship of their careers in the domain
  • Comfortable Accountabilities: Accountabilities should be designed with reference to achievable measures, preferably internal measures related to the discipline.
  • Limited Stakeholders: A few internal stakeholders often from similar functions with similar ideas and ideally few customer or community stakeholders who may introduce different perspectives and diverse issues. 
  • Few Dependencies: Trusting others reduces control and introduces risks, so collaboration and cooperation are avoided by controlling as much of processes and projects as possible 
  • Limited Transparency:  With utmost politeness, share little and participate little in the concerns of the rest of the organisation to preserve the comfort of your domain.
  • Stability: Ensure there is minimum change in business environment, even if this includes refusing to acknowledge market changes.
  • Minimum Risk: Avoid any change that offers risk. Why jeopardise an environment under close control?

The core of these definitions of safety is the idea that the threats to middle managers are internal. The biggest threats comes from other managers or senior management. The external world is not a cause for concern. Safety comes from building an walled fortress within the organisation and focusing internally.

Unsafe at any Speed

In the rapid change of our current business environment, the greatest risk to middle management is not internal. The need for change, the pace of change and its impacts are being driven in the networks around the organisation. Middle management has much more to fear from changing consumer and social behaviour, disruptive technologies and networked ways of working. 

The classic middle management definition of safety makes nobody safer. By turning inward, by resisting accountabilities, stretch and change, these managers guarantee that their organisations are exposed to much more wrenching changes than need be the case. Each of these elements of safety stand in the way of an open, agile and responsive organisation. When middle managers choose to act as barriers to change, the forces of change risk sweeping whole layers and organisations of managers away.

By focusing on a misguided view of individual safety, these managers make the organisation more unsafe as a collective.

Leaders who do not challenge a culture of safety in their organisation are putting their whole organisation at risk. Leaders need to be working to make the organisation more responsive. The safer organisation adapts.

From Safety to Safer

Leaders, change agents and forward thinking middle managers need to disrupt this misguided culture of safety in organisations. The conversation must not be about safety but how to make the organisation safer through adaption. This disruption must involve conflict with traditional views. However, that disruption will help the organisation adapt to a safer culture that opens the organisation up to its internal and external networks.

Here are some simple steps that any leader in an organisation can take to drive a responsive culture:

  • Push for external accountabilities: Raise the bar on performance. Measure customer outcomes. Consider end-to-end process performance to cut across siloed walls. Look externally for measures of success (and not just in the same industry).
  • Bring in external stakeholders: If customers, community, employees and other partners are not stakeholders in the organisations decisions then gather their perspectives and bring them into discussions across the organisation.  There is enormous power in real external views of the organisation, its purposes and performance.
  • Network the organisation: Focus on increasing the flow of information and knowledge within the organisation. Demonstrate the value of collaboration and cooperation in greater efficiency, innovation and engagement in the way work is done. Foster diverse perspectives on the way forward. Most importantly of all delegate outcomes and enable people to make change to adapt without reference to the hierarchy.
  • Experiment: The new definition of safety needs to be a well-run experiment to improve performance. The absence of well-run experiments is a sign of major concern. If you are not testing the way forward in changing times, then you are taking big risks.

You don’t need to be CEO to drive these changes to make a more responsive organisation. (Undoubtedly, it helps). You will need to effectively manage your role & influence in the organisation. However, effective change agents and middle managers can begin to ask the questions and start new conversations leveraging external perspectives. Most importantly of all they can build a network of others frustrated by the culture of safety and work together for change.


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