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How To Motivate Middle Managers To Create Productive Organisations

This week, Chris Phillips, an independent consultant and a graduate of neuresource group’s Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership, looks at how we can best motivate middle managers in order to create the most productive organisations.

photo by Alex Proimos

We spend a lot of our time bemoaning the fact that we are not motivated. Even worse, we procrastinate when it comes time to do everyday tasks at work and at home. In fact, for months, I have successfully found other things to do than write this article!

But for me, the question remains regarding our failure to motivate middle management into extraordinary achievements; I cannot help thinking it’s largely our fault as leaders.

Principally, when we’re speaking about business in Australia, there are three sets of thinking that apply to the hierarchy we impose on how we work — while at the same time we idealising that we function in a flat structure. These are:

  • Designers — This is the strategic thinking end of the spectrum, typified by senior executives who should be spending most of their brain space in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). They must get regular shots of dopamine from MACRO goal achievement and have a head for the vision — at least five years plus planning. Of course, this is nice in theory.
  • Enablers — Loosely, this refers to anyone from about tier three and below, who pave the way so that the producers can produce the things that keep the business afloat. They too should be operating in the PFC the majority of the time, but they receive regular dopamine injections from MICRO goal achievement as they meet KPIs and corporate goals. Depending on their role, they may be thinking ahead while remaining firmly planted in the now. But are they?
  • Producers — This group is focused on today. They know what to do, as it is all habit for them. However, never underestimate their problem solving ability nor their capacity for idea generation. If you can tap into it, that is!

I’d like to focus primarily on the enablers.

Enablers are not born into the role; we promote (or poach them) them because they generally show technical skill with some aptitude towards people. In turn, they are interested in advancement because of the pay and the challenge — or because they simply think it’s time to climb. The question is: where is the motivation for the betterment of the company? Nowhere, to begin with. That comes when we set their KPIs. That is, maybe.

Boiling Frog Syndrome

Are you familiar with Boiling Frog Syndrome? If you try to put a perfectly healthy frog into boiling water, it will fight like hell to save itself. But when you place the same frog into water and slowly increase the heat it will literally boil to death without ever trying to get out of the water. (Don’t try the experiment at home!) The frog exhibits different levels of motivation according to the circumstance.

While I appreciate that the brain of a frog is basic, that same ‘basicness’ forms part of our brains too. This is an important analogy for business because, all too often, we take a good producer and literally throw them into a pot of warm water that is heating up as we apply the pressures of the cut and thrust of business survival.

What, then, is happening in the brain in this situation?

Fundamentally, we operate on a spectrum between threat and reward, with our productivity (and motivation for the job) increasing the closer we are to the reward end of the spectrum. We also know that there are different things that influence our level of motivation. David Rock’s SCARF model (status, certainty autonomy, relatedness, and fairness) is a great litmus test as to why motivation varies in differing situations depending on the individual.

The brains of enablers

Let’s take a closer look at what we do to perfectly good people.

We don’t intentionally ‘boil’ our employees but, in essence, we too frequently do unintentionally subject their brains to the Boiling Frog Syndrome.

Just how do we do this?

Simply by apportioning a huge level of accountability, blame, and pressure. After all, it is always the fault of middle management.

They are responsible for sales targets, production deadlines, project completion timeframes, profit & loss, staff turnover, organisational culture, the state of the economy, the political environment, and anything else we can think of!

When profits are down, who is the first to be shed? When profits are up and we restructure for more efficiency, who does this most affect? When we come up with the next strategy or change, who is enlisted to implement it? When difficult conversations are to be held, who is suddenly ‘empowered’ so we can remain strategic and not operational? You guessed right: the enablers.

From the bottom up, who is to blame when the gear doesn’t arrive? When the pour cuts into smoko? When Freddy is chipped for being late? Yep, it is all the fault of middle management.

And, yet, we struggle to come to terms with their lack of motivation.

Enablers by design spend most of their waking hours at the threat end of the spectrum, which means higher levels of cortisol and much more stress. Therefore, they are not always performing in the logical part of the brain — the PFC. The world is full of examples of people that burn out, that get off the treadmill, that succumb to unhealthy extra-curricular activities to offset the day. And there are only a few examples of those that display extraordinary resilience and truly succeed.

Middle management motivation

So what’s the answer?

Like the search for the Holy Grail, it’s a journey, one that takes investment in both the enablers and the designers to ensure business success. A journey that takes leadership courage. (See my previous blog post Do we have the Heart to Lead?).

We need to equip these people who start out as stars in our eyes the tools they to keep them soaring through the Milky Way rather than being sucked into a black hole.

Their needs are different to producers. They need to develop skills around self-regulation, as well as techniques to understand both the people they are trying to get the best from and those that they work for. Recent breakthroughs in the study of the brain have lead to a number of great insights that help us build brain-friendly organisations, something that best facilitates these goals.

They also need to know what motivates the business, the ‘why’ of the firm (Watch Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle) so that they can ‘buy in’, understand their circle of influence, and become positively motivated rather than merely survival motivated.

As leaders, we need to accept the truth that everyone is always motivated, whether for survival or success. It’s up to us to create the environment that engenders successful motivation, in order to support and to get the best out of our middle managers.

Where do you want your business to be?

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