Do you remember the last time you took something out of the freezer and stuck it in the microwave? You were hoping for a tasty treat. But when the buzzer went off, you grabbed your food and stuck your fork in only to find a frozen middle.
The edges were hot and bubbly, but the center was just as cold as when you got it out of the fridge.
In today’s ever-increasing complexity of business, companies of all sizes are developing frozen middles.
What exactly does that mean?
Senior executives spend their days plotting vision and trying to get the workforce to execute on that vision. Yet the larger the corporation, the greater is the chance to suffer from the frozen middle.
Here’s how it happens.
Senior leaders set a course to deliver a new product or service. Junior executives distill the demands from the top and begin trying to communicate the details of a complex plan.
If the company has reverted to more of a matrix style reporting structure, i.e. people have dual reporting responsibilities, subordinate workers begin to suffer from command and control fatigue.
Signals get crossed and focus is lost. Rather than do something wrong, the folks in the middle freeze. They stop ‘doing’ for fear of doing it wrong. They will work, but the level of productivity lags simply because there is an unintended fear of doing something out of line or off the mark.
Creativity, collaboration, and even inclusion suffer.
Gifted and talented workers simply freeze in place.
What can Leaders do to thaw or avoid the frozen middle?
First, pay attention to your communication. The bigger the company, the greater is the flow of information. New policies, new procedures, new systems, etc. All of these serve to complicate the message(s) circulating through your offices and workshops.
You must strive for crystal clear clarity at every turn. Are your messages coherent and complementary to one another, or have you sent mixed signals?
Are your instructions consistent with the vision, mission, and goals you have launched?
Next, are your subordinate managers able to state the mission, values, and goals? Watch for simple parroting of the message; that is, repeating it back to you like a robot. Instead, they should each be able to state the purpose and vision for their teams in their own words. Yes, it should align with the greater good, but it has to come from their center of understanding, not some plaque on the wall.
Encourage your direct reports to work on this clarification of the message with their individual teams. Coach them through the process to create the message for their teams.
In addition, build trust in your circle of influence so that trust can be shared beyond just your inner circle. Model a trusting behavior for others to see so they can begin trusting you.
Speak empathetically. Embrace change.
Be patient. As change comes, not everyone aligns at exactly the same pace. Many will lag your understanding and enthusiasm. As a leader, you get an early preview of the changes that are needed.
Just because you “got it” and became excited about the change, not everyone else will immediately get it too. It is likely you needed your own time to process a pending change. Remember that. Allow your team their time to process change.
Finding Tools and Solutions
There is simply no better way to avoid the frozen middle than finding ways to keep your teams on the same page.
I’ve been coaching and advocating the Big 5 method of performance management for decades. In every situation where Big 5 has been adopted, work teams experience higher productivity, reduced stress, and greater team morale.
Tools and solutions like Big 5 go a long way to help. Big 5 is a way to get every employee to align with stated priorities for the next week or month. Then a simple, and short, review with the team lead/manager/supervisor can provide coaching and a checkpoint for keeping things aligned.