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It’s not all about you! Understanding other people’s reality in your organisation.

I’m currently writing a book with Professor Cary Cooper aimed at those in mid-level roles in organisations.** It’s a combination of considering the pressures faced when you are the filling in the sandwich, and how you stay motivated and continue to develop your career when the middle is where you may spend the rest of it. In researching this, one area that I’ve got interested in again is the extent to which many people have a very limited understanding of the realities others face; because they get so wrapped up in their own working life. The result of this can be at best an inaccurate perception of our colleagues, and at worst form the foundation for poor communication and relationships.

So what’s the reality faced by those around you in your business or organisation? You may well have been promoted from within and therefore will have your own lived experience of more junior roles. This can be useful but it is also important to recognise that the path any individual takes through an organisation, particularly a large and complex one, is one route amongst many. But perhaps start by looking upwards and considering the reality of life for your boss or manger.

How’s your relationship with your manger? It has been suggested that this can have as large an impact on your working experience as any other single factor. One finding often cited over the last fifteen years is based on Gallup’s analysis of twenty five years’ worth of US survey data; concluding that people leave mangers rather than companies (Buckingham and Coffman, C., 1999). While this has been challenged to some extent, most of us recognise how important the relationship with the boss is to our working life. Therefore, understanding their perspective can be enormously important for your effectiveness and wellbeing. It’s not just what they think of you directly, it is their wider pressures and outlook that will have a day to day impact on your experience with them. There are three core aspect to focus on to help understand the reality of life at more senior levels:-

  • Strategic Drivers – what drives senior people in terms of their strategic pressures and ambitions and how does this cascade through the organisation?

  • Interpersonal Dynamics – relationships at senior levels, particularly power plays and political factors.

  • Personal Motivations – the personal goals and ambitions of your manager and how they are likely to have an impact on you.

We develop these in the book (too early for a plug?), but let’s just consider one aspect of personal motivation that’s particularly relevant for those at senior levels: need for achievement.

Senior people in organisations are, not surprisingly, often high in need for achievement. This need was recognised way back in the 1950s by the American psychologist David McClelland. It is characterised by a need for achievable challenge. This can mean avoiding both very low risk and very high risk challenges. The former brings no satisfaction because the effort required to attain the goals is insufficient to fuel the need for achievement. The latter carries too many risks of non-achievement which obviously also fails to satisfy the need. In practice, those with a high need for achievement have a drive to demonstrate, particularly to themselves, that they are advancing and making progress. They also usually require regular feedback to help them evaluate their progress. This doesn’t mean you should spend lots of your time telling your boss how fantastic they are! Valid and well-delivered negative feedback may be just as important to someone with a high need for achievement as praise and positive reinforcement.

What about the reality for others at your level or those in more junior roles? A good way to better understand this is to engage with them to share the pressures they and you experience in core areas such as workload, change, and sense of control. Take the latter as an example of where sharing experience can strengthen your understanding of what others face, and as a result your relationship with them.

Obviously some people take more control than others, and personality and prior life experience have a large impact on their tendency to do so. However, those at low to middle levels in organisations often face mixed messages from more senior people on the extent to which they are expected to take control. Take the notion of empowerment. This has been a popular theme for many organisations over the last couple of decades. Many leaders have been encouraged to tell their people they are empowered, to take control and make the right decision, particularly those in customer facing roles. Unfortunately, in my experience, the message received by many is something along the lines of ‘you are empowered but don’t get it wrong.’ Employees might be asked to take control, make decisions, and even take risks to find the right solution. If they do so it inevitably means that they will occasionally make mistakes and get it wrong. But, if they are automatically chastised when this happens, then not surprisingly they won’t really believe they are empowered for long. How managers react when their people make well intentioned mistakes is very important in determining the extent to which they feel they can take control.

These are just a couple of examples of areas where it is useful to explore what others are experiencing. Looking outwards from your own day-to-day immediate reality is important for a number of reasons. It helps you better understand the context you are operating in. It enables better relationships and improves trust. In addition, it can help put your own pressures and problems into perspective, and recognise where you share challenges with others.

**We are still looking for case studies from organisations that have done great things with their people in mid-level roles. Please contact me if you have something you are able to share that is relevant.


Buckingham, M, Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules; what great managers do differently. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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