Thought Thursday- Seeing Systems Part 3: Leading from the Middle Space
Most of us can think of a time when we’ve been in the middle of something, where we are pretty sure that if we please one party, we will displease another. One of my oldest memories goes back to being a resident assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Back in the early 1970’s, I was lucky enough to receive room and board and half tuition for taking on this classic middle space role. My job was to provide peer counseling and mentorship while making sure the students on my floor abided by school policies. For those who have navigated this tricky space, you know the dilemma, which can easily be boiled down to a few choice words: build trust or make the bust. I remember sitting in my dorm room, as the parties raged on, and steeling myself for the interventions to come. Do I ignore this party? Do I shut that party down? Do I “write-up” the students for underage drinking or smoking pot and put them through the disciplinary process, at the cost to their academic futures? What position will this put me in when students with real problems on the floor come to me for help? What do I really believe is the right thing to do? Why did I take this job anyway?!
The other day, I was coaching a Department Chair who was in a similar position. She was being asked to implement a curricular change, which came from the central administration, and get the buy-in from her fellow faculty who had no interest in making the change. Worse yet, she too was uncertain about the impact of the recommended changes on student learning. She asked me, “What responsibility do I have to the administration, my fellow faculty and the students?”
This is the dilemma of the Middle Space. Whether you are a coach trying to advocate for a student athlete with the Admissions Office; a Development Director trying to steer a donor’s giving toward a specific school need; a Division Head responding to a parent’s complaint about a faculty member, or a parent trying to mediate a conflict between two children, life is filled with Middle Space dilemmas.
Barry Oshry explains that you know you are in the middle space when you have the experience of being torn. In reference to the analogy of the dog jumping into the lake, Oshry explains that the “reflexive shake” while being torn is an attempt to “slide into the middle” and try to please everyone. He says our most natural response is to run back and forth listening to all the parties and, in the process, we lose ourselves. We come off to others in our organization/system as wishy-washy, a pawn of one side or another and lacking leadership. To avoid losing ourselves, Barry says we need to take a stand. The stand for the middle space is: “Be a middle who maintains your independence of thought and action in stays in service to the system.” This stand leads us to alternative strategies for taking leadership:
1) Take top when you can. This means make a call and be willing to live with the consequences of your actions. In other words, do what’s needed and ask for forgiveness later.
2) Be the bottom when you should. This means you must be a reality check. As ideas from higher ups hit the ground, they sometimes do not have the desired effect. As a middle, when you see that things are not going to work out well, be courageous and push back. Be prepared to share alternative approaches that might fare better.
3) Be the coach, which means coaching either end, or both, so that they can effectively implement their ideas and/or share their feedback in ways that will serve the mission/system well.
4) Be the facilitator- Invite the key parties to a meeting and then design the format and process so that all voices are heard and you leave with shared agreements.
Sometimes we start with one strategy only to find that another is needed. As long as we stay focus on serving the system, rather than specific individuals, the potential for being effective is there. It takes courage and support. Support can often come from fellow middles in the system. Oshry explains that the place of greatest leverage in a system is the Middle Space. After all, they are the folks who are likely to partner with all levels of a system on a regular basis. When middles integrate with their peers regularly (especially without their bosses present) good things tend to happen. Here are agenda items for “Meetings of the Middles”, recommended by Oshry, which are to be used as a guide for meetings:
- Share information
- Work information (coming up with a system diagnosis)
- Coordinate efforts
- Problem solve
- Engage in mutual/peer coaching
- Share best practices
There is great power and great challenge in the middle space. Remember, slide out first, maintain your independence of thought and action, and lead with intention. Don’t be afraid to develop/refine your skills as a facilitator and a coach.
Tune in next week to learn how to navigate the bottom space!
To learn about the other spaces discussed, click the following links:
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