The ‘Permafrost’: Why Middle Managers are the last frontier when it comes to the implementation of flexible work

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We hear it all the time. The executives are all on board; our people are craving it, and asking for it. We have the policy and we have the process. But flexible work uptake still really depends on whom you report to. It is at the middle manager layer where it lives or dies. And like any cultural change program, it takes a very long time for it to start becoming the norm. The 'Permafrost' is really hard to thaw.

Personally, I am not a fan of labels. I think they are a cop out. Labelling a group of people almost delivers finality to the issue – as though they are just the way they are, with inherent, immovable characteristics, absolving us of any responsibility.

A more useful approach may be to address the issue with some compassion, or at least curiosity (as the old adage goes 'walk a mile in their shoes'). So here is my view, based on the landscape and my background in psychology and behavioural science.
 

Can management trust the leadership?
 

First and foremost, can they really trust the leadership rhetoric? It is uncanny, how many organisations have a long-standing flexibility policy, with 'full' support from the executive team, who often end up implying that they 'do not really need it' or ‘how do we manage it’. There are endless examples of C level execs who 'never' work flexibly, where EA's claim they are in 'meetings' but we all know they are not (i.e. golf course, their kids swimming carnival etc). We also know of many that still go out on the floor and praise those that are in the office 12-14 hours on a daily basis, and 'joke' about being able to shoot cannons through offices at 6pm. 

No amount of internal or external comms will be able to outweigh the banter but even more importantly the lack of role modelling happening in the executive team. Actions will always outweigh words.
 

What makes a middle management career?
 

Hero executives are made by being innovative, risk takers, trail blazers. Middle managers not so much. Middle management heroes are made by mobilising their teams to get the job done – quickly, on budget and on time. So when you have built your career, and reached the middle management layer by working one way (i.e. frantic crazy hours in the office), it is tough to let go of that 'way' of doing things, which is nothing but unsustainable.
 

The framework around mindsets and the mental shortcuts our brain takes is a helpful way to analyse this.
 

Negativity Bias/Threat Management

One of the evolutionary left overs from the days of living in caves and running from sabre tooth tigers was our uncanny ability to watch out for danger all around us.  Even if we were unsure if something was actually dangerous (like running into a new animal we have never seen before) it would have been more clever to be scared of it, as it could have turned out to be the first time we have seen a polar bear. It is obvious to see why this skill was critical for survival. Even though our environment has changed, our brains have not so much and we have a natural tendency to focus on the things we perceive as 'threatening' to us. Therefore when presented with something new we will naturally tend to be weary and perceive it as potentially dangerous. 

On top of that we are also negatively biased – which means that any negative emotions – fear, worry, etc – will have a much stronger effect on our psychological state, than the positive feelings like excitement about the positive aspects of the change. 

Specifically in our situation a middle manager who is told that they need to implement flexibility, but not given adequate support to deal with their concerns, and coaching on how to manage issues, will naturally tend to see this as a threat to all of the 'successful' ways of working that have helped them get this far in their careers. They will also overestimate the dangers of 'losing control of their team', people working remotely not getting their work done, and as we hear all the time 'people taking the piss'. Any of the benefits of the change will struggle to tip the scale toward making the overall picture positive, until there are many, many more of them, and the perceived 'dangers' are taken care of.

Status Quo

We are also heavily biased towards status quo – staying as things are – even when change will actually be better for us. Behaving differently is much more energy intensive and our bodies are designed for energy conservation. Changing what we do every day requires deliberately thinking about it, and making the decision not to just stay on autopilot. Pulling our thinking from automatic, System 1 which guides a lot of our behaviour, into System 2 – deliberate, conscious decision making to guide our behaviour is hard, and very energy intensive.  This is why people will naturally default to what they have been doing for years. They need a lot of “nudging” to get out of habits, and this is why human behaviour change is one of the most complex and still largely unsuccessful areas of research. But what we can say for sure, is that writing a policy and telling people to do something differently, especially when there is no consequence to staying the way they are, will not really work. People need support and infrastructure to nudge them towards change.

SCARF Model

We can also use some of David Rock’s SCARF Model to look at this change. The model tells us that we evaluate all interactions in terms of below five domains:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Let's look at a few to see how this applies;

Status

Status is all about our relative importance to others. While flexibility is still new, there is a large possibility of it being a threat to our status – as mentioned earlier we are naturally biased to see the threats. What if we lose control of our team, and the work standards drop? While they are here in the office, we have a perceived level of control of what is happening and how much work is getting done. Therefore managers will protect their status and the risk to it, by holding onto the perceived level of control as long as possible.

Also, until the execs are actively role modelling, and not just talking about flex, but living and breathing it loudly, people will not believe that those in higher status positions are really up for this change. You have to remember, that many of us have listened to the exec team talk about those who come in at 7 and leave at 7 as being 'impressive', or those that are always responsive, or those that work hard - the only measure of that for a long time have been hours in the office. As we know, actions speak louder than words, so until they lead by example, many will be doubtful of their support rhetoric. 

Certainty

Certainty is all about being able to predict the future. Looking at the biases we talked about before, as we are so negatively biased the new way of working is by nature uncertain. What we have done so far in our careers is certain. We know it works for us – it would not have gotten us promoted if it didn’t work. So people will naturally opt towards what they know.

Fairness

Reality is that many of us Gen Xrs and all of baby boomers have achieved success in their careers by putting work first and making sacrifices that we now are saying people do not need to make.  So when we are now asking managers from these generations to support career progressions and not doubt commitment of those choosing to work differently, no matter how much we may not want to admit it, a small part of us will think it unfair. All of us will off the record or after a glass of wine admit: “But I had to do it”, “I didn’t see my kids during the week, why do I need to support them to do it”, etc.

In the end to borrow a bit more from psychology it all comes down to ‘cognitive dissonance’ – people experience mental discomfort or psychological stress when their beliefs, attitudes and behaviour conflict in some way. Simply looking at it if we are asking middle managers to behave in a new way, we will need to spend more time and effort shifting their beliefs and attitudes most of which have been formed over a number of years and in a very different environment. The hard part is that a lot of those mindsets are unconscious and shifting them is hard. 

If we really want flexibility to succeed let’s look at it holistically, and have some sympathy and compassion for those that need to make it a reality. No matter how much rationally we know it is a great thing for everyone, so much of our understanding of human behaviour and neuroscience tells us why it is actually very threatening to many, and we need to help people past that.

No amount of policy writing will melt it, but a well thought out mix of training, role modelling, behavioural nudges, data and great storytelling will do a lot to melt the 'permafrost'.

Connect with us to find out what flex could look like in your organisation or contact Juggle Strategies Co-Founder, Maja Paleka directly at maja.paleka@jugglestrategies.com.au

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