Teams rely on their managers to cut through the mucky-muck and help them get their jobs done. Middle managers are most likely to face mucky-muck because they interact with more functions, levels, groups, and individuals than others in the agency. Once mucky-muck presents itself, there are ways you can reduce its power over your department and organization. Let's look at 11 high-impact management techniques for navigating through the mucky-muck.

Technique 1: Do the right homework

Jim and his team needed to come up with a department plan for the coming year. They knew that senior management had several preconceived ideas about what the plan should look like. Rather than wasting their time creating a plan that only represented what they thought the priorities should be, they first sought to understand the senior managers' points of view, and then they developed their plan. Some might say this approach was faulty because it led to Jim and his team circumscribing their own ideas to those of senior management. Though this may be true, the team knew that the senior managers had already made up their minds about what they thought needed to happen. The team members knew that they could most help the organization by developing a plan that implemented senior management's ideas in the best possible way. In the end, they were able to influence several aspects of the plan much more than they would have had they not been sensitive to senior management's agendas.

As a middle manager, you will face situations like this on a regular basis. If there are strong opinions or relationships influencing a decision maker, it is best to do your homework and discover what they are before wasting too much time working in an opposite direction. Before starting a project, ask yourself, "Is there historical information that would be helpful to know? What are senior management's thoughts on this project? What approaches have been suggested in the past? Are there preferred vendors or partners that should be maintained?" There may be times when this added work and research is not necessary and unencumbered creative thinking is possible. However, it is always better to err on the side of being prepared and doing your homework.

Technique 2: Pick and choose your battles

Ann knew that she was right about the benefits of changing to a different vendor and that she had presented a thorough case to her bosses. She felt the decision to turn down her proposal was not logical. She did not want to let go of her idea, but in the end she realized that it was not a battle worth fighting. The current vendor cost more and did not provide the high level of service that the proposed vendor would have; but overall, the service they received was satisfactory. Nothing terrible was going to happen if they kept the current vendor. There would be bigger and more important battles to fight another day, and Ann knew it was better to let this one go.

Middle managers often face the decision whether to hold firm and fight for what they think is right or accept another decision and move on. If you wage too many battles, you may end up commanding less respect in your organization. In addition, your message will seem watered-down and ineffective. Like the story of the boy who cried wolf, if you tout every proposal or idea as critically important, you will eventually find that the truly important projects will be ignored or seen as being unworthy of special consideration. High-impact managers know how to choose their battles and use their influence for maximum gain and consequence.

Technique 3: Focus energy where it will count

Tracy and her team knew there were a few departments that were not receptive to the coaching and development they could provide. She offered their services to all departments but focused on working with the few groups that showed interest in, and would most benefit from, their support. At any time, the other groups could change their mind and receive help as well. Tracy recognized that the saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink" also applied to individual managers and teams. By not forcing her support onto the managers who were obviously not interested in working with her, Tracy was able to spend her time in a way that was more fruitful and satisfying.

Middle managers work hard to have a positive influence on as broad an audience as possible. When individuals or groups show that they are not receptive, focus your efforts and attention in another direction. This, of course, is not always possible. If a middle manager finds that the people who report directly to him are not receptive to management, then he needs to address and fix the problem. The manager cannot choose to manage another group instead. If, however, there are several possible projects to propose and work on, it is wise to consider which will receive more collaboration and cooperation when deciding how to manage your and your team's time and resources.

Technique 4: Overcommunicate, be inclusive, and follow up

Lou assumed that other managers understood his role and the functions of which he had ownership. It is rarely safe to assume that this kind of interdepartmental understanding exists. A better approach for Lou would have been to communicate more frequently and with a wider audience about the projects and initiatives that he and his group were undertaking. All middle managers should err on the side of overcommunication to reduce the likelihood of miscommunication, duplication of work, and contradictory information.

Technique 5: Analyze and fix it

When Mike joined the organization as the accounting manager, it was fraught with contradictory financial information and inaccurate reports. He rolled up his sleeves, dug into the numerical mess, and fixed many of the problems with the data. He also oversaw the creation of several reports that helped managers run their parts of the agency more effectively. When faced with contradictory information, duplication of efforts, or miscommunication, great middle managers do whatever it takes to understand and solve the problem. Good analysis goes a long way toward reducing or eliminating these and other types of mucky-muck.

Technique 6: Ask probing questions to reveal motives and hidden agendas

Mindy was an intuitive manager who knew the right questions to ask to discover a person's real intent and motivation. At one meeting, a manager was recommending that they restructure several roles. Mindy asked several questions to determine this manager's motive for recommending the change. Privately, she speculated whether his agenda was to increase the size of his organization or if he thought the current department manager was doing a poor job. Mindy's open-ended questions helped to clarify the details of the manager's recommendation. High-impact managers know when and how to ask the right questions that help explain the intent and motivation behind others' comments and suggestions.

Technique 7: Repair Relationships

John and Barry knew that their relationship was dysfunctional, but it was not until they were honest with each other that they were able to repair it and work together more effectively. Once they resolved issues between them, both of their departments experienced less mucky-muck. It can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it is important for you to repair damaged relationships with current employees or co-workers. When not dealt with, these poor relationships will get in the way of communication, work flow, and results. Repairing a relationship does not mean that you have to socialize with each other; it means being able to work together productively and collaboratively. Workplace relationships should facilitate rather than hinder productive work.

Technique 8: Believe in the capacity people have for change and learning

If Tim had not looked past his employees' learned helplessness, he might have written them off as poor performers. Instead, he created a work environment that nurtured creativity and initiative. It took a while, but most of the previously lethargic employees became more engaged and passionate about their work. They accepted the changes that Tim was implementing and offered ideas for additional improvements. Great middle managers know that most performance problems are actually management or system problems and that, given the right guidance and leadership, nearly all employees will have the desire and capacity to do a great job. Mucky-muck can get in the way of people doing their best work, but the damage does not have to be permanent.

Technique 9: Get organized

When Sally started her new job, she took over for an extremely unorganized manager. The first couple of months were difficult for Sally, and she felt set up to fail. Mucky-muck that comes from disorganization is common but is also the easiest kind to fix. Once Sally created a filing system and a routine that worked for her, she gained control of her department and became productive and successful. High-impact managers know that they need to stay organized to ensure that they and their teams are efficient and feel confident about their work. Whether done daily, weekly, or as needed, creating and practicing methods for organizing work is an important skill for middle managers.

Technique 10: Lighten up and roll with it

Tim was an intense middle manager who let mucky-muck frustrate him. He asked why it was that things had to be a certain way or why it wasn't easier to get work done. This emotional reaction got in the way of his moving past the mucky-muck and getting his job done. It would have been better for him to shrug his shoulders, chuckle a bit, and rethink how to get the work done. Like Tim, some middle managers take mucky-muck too seriously. They get upset about the inefficiencies and frustration mucky-muck causes, which keeps them from being able to navigate through it. When dealing with mucky-muck, the first action you should take is to see it for the ridiculous barrier that it is. The middle managers who prevail despite it all are able to quickly move beyond the barriers. They know there are many ways to make a difference, and that they can do great work even when faced with mucky-muck. Sometimes, the best approach is just to laugh at it and move on.

Technique 11: See and enjoy accomplishments

Jim was grumbling to Lou about how hard it was to work in their organization because of all the mucky-muck he faced daily. Lou agreed but chose to see it another way. Although Jim was right about the mucky-muck, Lou saw the situation as inspiring and hopeful. They had a great middle management team that accomplished much under difficult working conditions. They had been successful in creating major change and improvements within a work environment that was rife with politics, disorganization, and other permeations of mucky-muck. What an accomplishment! Moreover, they were learning skills that would benefit their careers and enable them to prevail in almost any work environment. Yes, it was frustrating, and, yes, getting things done should not have been so hard, but the success of the team was worthy of celebration. Middle managers who produce results and get through the mucky-muck should recognize and take pride in the work they do and the results they achieve against the odds.

Be part of the solution, not the problem

As a high-impact manager, you need to be careful that you do not become a mucky-muck generator. Now that it is clear what mucky-muck is and how it damages productivity and results, you have the responsibility to own the mucky-muck that you create and to eliminate it. There are significant benefits in doing so. First, your work will be more meaningful and successful when not deluged with self-inflicted mucky-muck. Second, middle managers who ensure that they do not become part of the problem will enjoy others' respect and trust. To make your workplace productive, use these guidelines:

  • Plan and communicate work plans in clear and complete terms.
  • Communicate openly and candidly with managers, peers, and employees.
  • Understand the motivations and intentions behind your ideas and suggestions. Share them honestly.
  • Share projects and initiatives with peers at the formative stage of planning and implementation.

Note: This article is excerpted from High-Impact Middle Management: Solutions for Today's Busy Public-Sector Managers by Lisa Haneberg.

Lisa Haneberg is vice president and organizational development practice leader for MPI Consulting and has taught and coached hundreds of managers during the past 25 years. As a manager, management trainer, and coach for companies both large and small, she has held leadership positions focused on manager development and effectiveness. Her expertise includes one-to-one management coaching, management course facilitation, organization development, and business writing. She is a certified master trainer and behavioral assessment interpreter; lisahaneberg.com.

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