E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

From Adaptation into Engagement by Luis Suarez

Language matters. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself about how important it is to build a narrative you would feel rather comfortable with when interacting with other people, whether your peers, your customers, your business partners, even your competitors. It’s something that has been in my mind over the course of time in terms of how we get work done more effectively through these digital technologies. You see? I cringe a little bit every time that someone mentions the word “drive” (Specially, when you are not in a car!), or “adoption” or the combination of both: driving the adoption (of Social Business). So whenever someone invites me to help inspire a new narrative within their organisation(s), as they embark themselves on the so-called Social Business and Digital Transformation journeys, it’s an opportunity that I just don’t let go that easily. Why? Well, because having a good, representative narrative on what matters to you and your business is no longer down to some fancy words, but more down to actions. Essentially, walking the talk, leading by example.

That’s why when the European Commission invited me last week to go to Brussels, and spend a couple of hours with a representative group of middle managers, to help them understand the role they would need to play, when embracing digital technologies, adjusting accordingly their management and leadership capabilities to the new reality, I just took the opportunity to demonstrate how important having the right narrative would well be for their own efforts to become a Socially Integrated Enterprise. Regardless of the organisation or the management layer.

So, instead of driving the adoption of middle managers from the European Commission, we talked about business purposes and how social technologies could act as a rather valuable and unprecedented enabler towards achieving a certain number of goals. We talked about the need to move away from adoption and into adaptation, understanding that they are the group that, beyond early adapters, everyone else is looking up to when embracing these emerging social tools while at work. 

You see? While most people out there would consider that middle managers are the main hurdle or obstacle towards the successful adaptation of businesses to this new way of hyperconnected, networked, smarter work, through social networks, here I am thinking, instead, they are your best ally beyond the first and second wave of “early adapters”. Most people may not realise about this, but middle managers are the social bridges within organisations. They are well connected to people down the trenches, while, at the same time, they keep close ties with those on the top. They essentially talk to both groups. They understand the needs and wants from both groups. They know, very well, how to get the most out of each of them, and if they have traditionally been perceived as rather static, hierarchical and overall disengaged, is because they have always been perceived as the main problem, when they are eventually the solution.

Middle managers are that specific group of practitioners, because, yes, they are also practitioners, just like you and me, that have been caught right in between this digital revolution of social technologies just as disengaged as everyone else. So when looking into a business purpose or problem to tackle with the emergence of Social Business employee disengagement is just as good for them as for everyone else. Remember, currently 87% of today’s knowledge workforce, according to Gallup’s recent research, is disengaged at work. So if you have got a group of 100 middle managers, that means that about 13% of them are the ones executing on the work they have, because they feel motivated enough to make it happen. The rest will just continue to struggle along generating perhaps even more disengagement amongst the rest of the workforce. And that is the main business problem we are currently facing and why we need to keep inspiring a next generation of leaders, not just senior or executive leaders, for that matter, who are willing to change their own narrative and understand that effective leadership in this so-called Social Era is not about empowering people around you, it’s about enabling those around you.

It’s about helping them understand how, as a leader, you will be offering your own help and support to provoke that transformation. How the time for command and control, or micro-managing your employees is a thing of the past. How to become an effective leader you would need to acquire a new set of skills and capabilities that would help you transform yourself from being just another middle manager doing their (disengaged) work into the new kind of Open Leadership that’s very much needed to help re-engage a knowledge workforce that right now is on the brink of collapsing on its own. 

That’s why words no longer mean anything on their own. That’s why actions do mean everything. That’s why leading by example, walking the talk, exhibiting those new leadership capabilities and competencies would help you, as a (middle / senior) leader, understand the new dynamic of what it is like thriving in social networks, being part of the pack, one of the nodes, one that can act as the main catalyst to connect the dots across the organisation understanding that the days for the good old strict and rigid hierarchy are well numbered and how it is time to transition into a hybrid approach of combining both hierarchy and wirearchy to then eventually transition into a wirearchy inspired organisation. 

A lot has been written in the past about the critical role that middle managers play when embarking on the Social Business Transformation journey. However, they also have got business problems of their own that they would need to solve first, as my good friend, and fellow CAWW member, Simon Terry quoted just recently: “Middle managers like to complain about being squeezed by pressures from above and below. Their organisations love to blame them for all the ills in the place”. Perhaps it’s now a good time to understand that we should probably stop blaming them for everything that has gone wrong in an organisation and, instead, help enable them to understand their new critical role in the leadership ladder to become the social bridges to effectively make change happen. 

How? Well, probably by exhibiting, through actions, not words anymore alone, a new kind of leadership capabilities, associated with the whole notion around both Social Business and Open Business under a new, rather specific, framework: Open Leadership. To that extent, a little while ago, I put together a presentation at Haiku Deck where I captured my interpretation of what those new leadership traits would be like putting them in context about the main business purpose behind them when embracing the emergence of social technologies at the workplace: eventually, re-engage the knowledge workforce. Yes, to me, still, and by far, our number one business problem in today’s business world, whatever the industry, whatever the sector, no matter what organisation.

Can you imagine the huge potential of transforming our work environment from having just barely a bit over 10% of the employee population doing all the hard work, where we are just about to enter the stage of mere survival, to eventually have a much much higher level of purposeful participation and overall engagement? I know how plenty of folks have been talking all along about social networking’s capabilities to democratise the workplace. To me, it goes well beyond that. It’s about that unique opportunity to democratise how we work, how we connect, collaborate and share our knowledge more effectively, so that we can get work done without all the unnecessary stress and ill-behaviours we are currently exhibiting that are managing, little by little, to destroy everything that we have been building up over the course of decades, and, to such extent, that’s the main reason why middle managers are the main enablers of that transformation journey. 


From Adaptation into Engagement. From being blamed from all sides for everything that goes wrong, to become the catalyst enablers helping transform not only the way we all work, but also, essentially, the corporate cultures we breathe in day in day out. After all, they always had the authority to act. Now they just need to show what Open Leadership truly means in the connected workplace and demonstrate it accordingly, not only by their words alone, but also by their own actions, too! 


Written by Luis Suarez

Chief Emergineer, People Enabler and Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide and a well seasoned Social / Open Business evangelist and 2.0 practitioner with over 15 years of experience on knowledge management, collaboration, learning, online communities and social networking for business; and has been living, since February 2008, a (work) life without email challenging the status quo of how knowledge workers collaborate and share their knowledge by promoting openness, transparency, trust, sustainable growth, engagement, connectedness and overall smart work. He can also be contacted over in Twitter at @elsua or Google Plus

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  1. Hi Luis
    Thank you for this really interesting post and I was intrigued by your recent trip to Brussels where you engaged with middle managers in the task of helping them “embrace digital technologies” . The approach you took of seeing them as the “social bridges” within organisations, “the enablers rather than blockers” – is fascinating! An almost reverse psychology to the enterprise norm!
    The trouble with managers in those key bridging positions that span the divide between senior management and “the trenches” is that they can also be in a prime position to block – its inescapable!. In my experience they are very effective blockers too because of that connection they have and their sphere of influence. Whether it’s based on fear of the new transparent realm, or simply an inability to change their behaviours to embrace the technologies – so “I don’t want my workforce to either” mentality – I don’t know. Eventually they come round – but in the meantime they may have done real damage to the process of engagement.
    I’ve personally heard a middle manager saying “that (meaning the social platform) doesn’t pay your wages – I do, so get back to work!”
    It takes a very enlightened middle manager to embrace open leadership – because unlike their senior managers above them they feel more threatened and exposed by the notion of those below them coming up from the rear for everyone to see – when they are least expecting it!
    Where I agree with you wholeheartedly is that they are a key group of people to win over as “early adopters” because, as you say, they have the potential to be really important connectors, to play a critical role and lead by example nearer to the ground where the significance of their actions is much more clearly felt.

    Thanks Luis – that was so refreshing to read!

    1. Hi Marie-Louise, many thanks for the wonderful comments and for taking the time to share such a thoughtful response. It’s greatly appreciated, as usual. Don’t take me wrong, in my experience, I have also bumped into plenty of middle managers who have been massive blockers of all efforts related to helping knowledge workers adapt to social technologies. In fact, I have seen, throughout the years, plenty of them telling “their” people to not even pay attention to those social technologies, never mind even reaching above them without their permission. That command and control mentality is pretty much alive and kicking, still.

      But the thing is that when you dig in a bit deeper and you get to dive into a deeper conversation with them they would tell you the main reason why they are “fearful” and apprehensive of social technologies is because they just don’t know how they operate. They lack both the awareness and necessary enablement helping them of the huge potential they have in helping them become better leaders, in becoming those social bridges I mentioned above. Once you help them understand you are there to help enable them see through the value proposition of working in a networked environment, they can become not only the new breed of leaders throughout the hierarchy, but at the same time your biggest advocates and enablers because of their authority to act accordingly.

      That’s why I think it’s important to go against the norm thinking they will always be the blockers and offer them an opportunity to go through that awareness phase of explaining what that adaptation to emerging technologies would look like and take it from there.

      And if they still want to remain the blockers, I think that’s the time for upper, senior leadership / management to come down from their ivory towers where they may have been feed with inaccurate information and help them see where the roadblocks are, so they can act accordingly on them to free up what’s inevitable at this stage: the business transformation.

      Thanks again for the feedback, Marie-Louise! Excellent stuff!

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