The ‘frozen middle’ of leadership can be thawed, enabling creativity to flow

“Frozen middle” is a dismissive and frankly unfair term for middle managers who supposedly block progress because they’re too cautious to take risks. The phenomenon is real; lots of companies struggle with resistance to change. But it is leaders who have the most influence over whether middle management operates more like a glacier or a river.

Here are some suggestions for organizations of all sizes.

Stop trying to hire the ‘best’ people, and hire the right ones

Hiring for creativity is the single most important element to preventing stasis at all levels of your company. As Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck-E-Cheese, explains in his book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” creativity is the most valuable resource in any company. 

Equally important is a collaborative spirit. Groundbreaking innovation requires ongoing collaboration among smart, dedicated people with different perspectives who are equally adept at listening and challenging. You need teams that can sharpen and build on each other’s contributions, without regard for who will get credit (or blame). 

And don’t fall into the trap of hiring only people who “fit” your culture. 

“What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with,” wrote Patty McCord, former Netflix executive, in the Harvard Business Review in 2018. “But people with all sorts of personalities can be great at the job you need done.”

Be available — but not too much

Author and business consultant Simon Sinek emphasizes that management and leadership are different; the former is structural, the latter is personal. Communication builds empathy, and empathy builds trust, and all three are vital to increasing an organization’s capacity to innovate. But you can’t do this only in memos and meetings. Small-group and one-on-one interactions, especially unplanned ones, are invaluable. You’re not much of a talker? That’s OK, listening is more important anyway.

But an open-door policy can be too much of a good thing. 

“When staff is constantly bringing questions and problems to the boss,” writes productivity expert Maura Thomas, “and the boss provides answers and solutions, this can create the unintentional consequence of the team becoming disempowered (or lazy).”

Empower people

What exactly does it mean to empower people? For starters, let them make decisions. We’ve worked with some partner-clients that impose the same excessive risk-mitigation and reporting standards on all projects, even when they tell us that disruptive (as opposed to iterative) innovation and speed to market are important. 

Never assume that those below the C-suite don’t fully grasp the landscape or stakes. A recent international survey showed that “workers seem to recognize more clearly than leaders do that their organizations are contending with multiple forces of disruption, each of which will affect how companies work differently.”

Be the change

Middle managers got where they are in part by navigating the culture, which involves a lot of reading between lines and hearing what’s not said. Be sure that your words and actions encourage the creative thinking and risk-taking that will help your company thrive.

Bill Nottingham is vice president at Nottingham Spirk.