Feeling like a lone-wolf leader can be one of the most anxiety-inducing situations in which individuals can find themselves. But that is exactly what it feels like when you’re leading in the gap. From senior leadership expectations to generational differences to communication issues, being pulled from two separate directions, while simultaneously tasked to bring two different groups together and lead with both arms stretched out can be a daunting task. Most people experience a time in their lives or professional careers when they must mediate a seemingly impossible situation. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object. However, while these situations may seem to need a one-of-a-kind leader, they simply need a person who is willing to stand up and lead in the gap.
Middle Management Gap
One gap leaders may find themselves in is the middle management gap. This occurs when leaders have employees who answer to them, while at the same time also answer to higher-level leadership for the overall progress of their teams. The middle manager plays a key organizational role that can handle this responsibility effectively and become the difference in making an average organization great.
The middle management gap can be attributed to the perspective of expectations. On one hand, senior leadership requests the middle manager to answer for the team’s progress, while employees implore their supervisor to help guide them to success and understand their workload, as well realistic time constraints. Each has a narrative they’re trying to espouse, which can cause tension and develop a line drawn in the sand.
In these situations, it’s important that the leader not just lead down to their team, but also lead up to the organization’s leadership. This is accomplished by imparting the vision and direction of the organization and creating buy-in with employees by simultaneously creating realistic expectations concerning timeframe, outcome, and results. The middle manager is the bridge in this situation.
With five generations currently in the workforce, organizations can be susceptible to issues arising from differing views, work styles, and overall outlook on best organizational practices. This can cause a generational gap between co-workers, as well as between your employees and the company’s leadership.
Each generation has unique attributes that guide their work styles, and while there has always been a gap between these, the perceived gap is expanding. In 1969, 74% of individuals saw major differences between the generations, 40 years later, that percentage rose to 79%, according to Pew Research. These perceived “gaps” can define generations, but often create conflict in the workplace.
When generational conflict arises in an organization, it’s important to work with all parties to help bring a solution that best aligns with the company’s culture and future vision. Regardless of whether issues are between co-workers or between leadership and employees, generational gaps are best bridged through the mutual understanding that all differing work styles and opinions should have a singular focus: the success of the team. Whether a company is more of a traditional 8-to-5, suit-and-tie organization or a remote, contract-style collective, the company culture calls for employees to fit within that system. It’s the leader’s job to help employees with that transition, while still creating an environment for all workstyles and preferences to flourish.
Whether a leader manages two or 200 employees, one thing is true—communication issues can cause lasting effects on a company’s culture and morale. And while a gap in understanding can be due to an endless number of possibilities, communication breakdown has the potential of creating real conflict in the workplace. Effective leaders can help ease tension and stress between co-workers by bridging the communication gap through conflict management.
The communication gap can also grow larger through a leader’s avoidance of the issue. According to an Interact survey conducted by Harris Poll, 69% of managers said they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees, while 37% cite being uncomfortable giving direct feedback due to a potentially negative employee response. It’s imperative for a leader to not only mitigate issues between employees, but also effectively handle these personal feedback issues in order to close communication gaps between all parties.
Documenting these situations also helps with the overall understanding between all parties. While there are specific responses that are appropriate for different circumstances, helping the two parties understand the other side, as well as the condition as a whole, can alleviate tensions that may arise during these delicate situations.
Leading in the Gap
To effectively lead in the gap, leaders must not simply bridge the expanse between two parties—they need to focus on closing the gap. This requires the leader to stand in the middle of issues or growth opportunities to help all parties come together for the greater good of the organization. If you find yourself in a similar situation, embrace the seemingly impossible and work from the middle, leading your team out of the gap and onto level ground.
How have you navigated situations with two separate parties? What have you done to lead in the gap during times of conflict? Let us know in the comments section below!