Stuck in the Middle with you

The words of the late great Gerry Rafferty are ringing in my ears today.  The ‘squeezed middle’ is constantly being talked and tweeted about. Whether in relation to the controversial NHS bill, or the impact of rising University fees, or proposed changes to Child Benefit,  people argue that the most poor and needy have safety nets to protect them, while the richest in our society can afford to pay whatever changes are imposed. It is the poor people in the middle that suffer most.  I’m just not sure who is in this ‘middle’ (or should that be muddle) and who is not.  Is the middle a narrow slice of our society, squashed between haves and have-nots, or is the middle actually a massively thick wedge accounting for the vast majority of us?

What I do know is that we all experience the feeling of being in the middle at various times and in the various roles that we fulfil throughout our lives. The psychology of the behaviour associated with the roles we adopt, and how we manage ourselves when we are in these positions, plays a massive part in the effectiveness and success of our organisations, companies and communities.  For great background reading on this area I recommend you look at the work of Barry Oshry (click here)

For simplicity, we will refer to people as Tops, Middles and Bottoms, which refers to the role they find themselves in at any given time. It is important to note that these roles can change and are not fixed by things such as position or seniority. Some people may occupy all three roles – depending on the task, who else they are dealing with, levels of expertise and so on.  People who operate from the Middle most often, however,  experience similar things in any system (where system can be a company, a family, a community).

  • They often feel torn between conflicting needs, requests, demands and priorities of those above them and those below them
  • They are often ‘loners’ – not connected with Tops or Bottoms, and not really connected with one another
  • They are often seen by others as confused or wishy-washy, as having no independence of thought and action; they don’t know who they are.
  • They receive little positive feedback; they are never doing quite enough for anybody which leads to them thinking ‘maybe I’m not as competent as I thought I was’.
  • They complain about being torn between priorities, yet cling to it. They enjoy being in the middle, needed by both sides, so central and so important.

And the way that people in the Middle respond to these pressures is also predictable.

  • They may find their identity by aligning themselves with Tops, becoming more Top than Top, thereby alienating themselves from Bottoms.
  • They may align themselves  with Bottoms championing their causes, thus alienating themselves from Tops (‘by not being seen as sufficiently managerial’).
  • They will often ‘over-bureaucratise’ themselves in seeking to do things the ‘right way’ meaning that making progress is like wading through treacle.
  • They will try to be fair and responsive to both Tops and Bottoms and in doing so simply burn out in the effort.

The interesting part of Oshry’s work is that it goes on to show equally limiting and damaging behaviours being played out by Tops and Bottoms.

Tops, for example, suck up more responsibility for making things happen and become ever more burdened, complaining all the while about the burden while clinging to it, and fearing loss of control.

Bottoms, meanwhile, don’t trust those at the Top, feel that Middles add little value, feel unseen and uncared for, and generally believe that things are just done to them without consultation.

What Oshry went on to show was that by getting people to adopt different perspectives, really seeing things from another point of view, an enhanced sense of understanding emerged leading to more co-creating and collaborating on formulating solutions to problems.

Here are some great tips for people in the Middle:

1. Resist the urge to make other people’s problems, issues and conflicts your own.  Your job is to empower them to resolve their issues, not take responsibility for them.

2. Keep your own mind. When your attention is on conflicting information from Above and Below, you are apt to be confused and torn. Learn to pay attention to your point-of-view, your values, and your solutions. Be a middle who stays out of the middle by maintaining your independence of thought and action.

3. Be a Top whenever you can, and take responsibility for being Top. Work on the tough issues. Don’t pass them to the Top. Tops need to know only those situations that are truly unsolvable at Middle levels. Without asking permission, do what needs to be done, but be willing to ask for forgiveness or take the rap if it turns out poorly.

4. Be a Worker when you should, and take the consequences of being on the bottom.   Bad directives from Tops? Middles are often better positioned to recognize and deal with downward garbage. Deal with it at the Middle level. Don’t pass it on to the Workers.

5. Be a Coach rather than a fixer. Empathize with their condition and understand their situation — but don’t solve their problems for them. Your job is to work with them and empower them to solve their own problems.

6. Facilitate solutions by bringing together the people who need to be together, and helping them have productive interactions. Step out of being the buffer between them.

7. Integrate with one another. Cultivate cooperative, collaborative relationships with other Middles. Carefully consider how the decisions you make for your own group will impact your peer’s groups. You need the power of strong, interactive peer relationships to reduce alienation and become successful contributors.


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