Cut Out The Middle Man

October 25, 2006

From time to time, I notice that many of us let ourselves become the middle man in the lines of communication within our organization. A department head has an issue with another department head. Instead of discussing the problem with the co-worker responsible, the person comes to you and asks you to relay the issue. I have found in health care, we want to be helpful. We try to handle the situation by saying, “I’ll go talk to that department head’s VP.” or “Let me talk with the other department head myself.” The correct response is “Have you spoken to that person yet?”

Organization charts are great for job descriptions and developing teams, but they aren’t the best for communication. Let me give you my real life example:

It is 1993; I’m the COO of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago. The Chief Nurse Officer doesn’t report to me, but there are a few things I think she could do a little bit better and I’m sure there are a few things she feels I could do better. So during a supervisory meeting with my CEO, I find a little opening to mention my observations to him. Because the CNO reports to him, I share some concerns I have about what’s going on in nursing.

And I really think I presented it quite well. I wait for the CEO to say, “Quint, let me talk to her.” Instead, he turns to me and says, “Quint, those are good observations. What did she say when you told her this?”

There was silence. And then he said these words that could be interpreted as “It’s time to grow up.” He said, “Quint, I’ll tell you what. It’s best if you talk to her directly because you’re both adults. You’re both leaders, and if you can’t resolve this then both of you can come to see me and we’ll discuss it together.”

Now I had two options. I could either go through the pain of discussing my observation or endure the pain of not discussing my observations and not realizing the outcomes. For most people, the pain of not confronting is worse than confronting. I went to talk to her. Not only was I taught this skill but also we all were – we learned to talk to each other. That is why Holy Cross Hospital won the 1994 AHA Great Comeback Award.

We all need to learn to have adult conversations in the workplace. It’s easy to grumble and gripe or ask someone else to convey our messages, but problems don’t get resolved that way. Usually the opposite happens: they magnify and come to involve more people than necessary in their resolution.

How to Cut Out the Middle Man

  1. Don’t let yourself be used as the go-between, even though your natural tendencies are to help others and solve problems. Push the parties to talk directly and offer to help if they can’t work it out between themselves. Most often they can and will thank you for bringing them together.
  2. If someone comes to you saying that he represents a group, ask the person who is being represented? Do the members of the group know you’re representing them? About 99% of the time, the person will say, “No.” Then you ask that person to speak for himself. This will cause some discomfort, but the message will get back that people need to carry their own messages.
  3. If a leader says that people can’t come directly to you with the excuse “that you’re too intimidating,” meet the excuse head on. Tell the person that you want to be more approachable and ask for help so that you can understand what you can do to be more approachable. This is a “win-win.” Either the person will admit the issue is his,or you will get constructive feedback. You have taken away the excuse.

12 Responses to “Cut Out The Middle Man”

  1. Gwendolyn Riney, RN Says:

    A timely message at the integral moment I really needed to hear it.

    You helped force me out of my comfort zone and into a crucial conversation.

    God was sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear at the same time he was kicking me in the behind,
    coercing me to move.

    Thank you for helping guide me in the right direction.

    Gwendolyn Riney, RN
    Team Leader – Service Excellence,
    Pulmonary Clinical Care Coordinator

  2. Maria Motsavage Says:

    Great words of wisdom. It is all too often that we get caught in this situation and try to “fix” it ourselves. Often, without knowing both sides, we end up making the situation much worse than before. I have found this to be true when dealing with residents’ families as well. It is so much better to discuss with them directly and resolve an issue or better yet – EMPOWER your employee to do so. Being in the middle is only good when you are playing golf!!! Thanks. Maria

    Ideal “Rolls out the Red Carpet for You” !

    Have an Ideal Day
    Maria Motsavage
    Ideal Senior Living Center

  3. Melissa Says:

    Great advice! I prefer the British method, just say it how it is and be direct, no beating around the bush, but be respectful in the process! (I’m a Brit)!

    Melissa Cuevas

  4. Thelma Says:

    … This one is especially timely, as I’m having this very issue and needed some help in how to change!

    Thanks again.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    Thank You for the coaching, how did you know to send it today when I needed it to validate my practice? It is like magic!

    I appreciate what you have done for our organization, Becky

  6. Bill Says:

    It is all to easy to blow things like this off as being soft and people
    need to toughen up. I say the majority of our turn over is because of
    the interaction between the supervisor and the employee.

    Food for thought…..


  7. Carolyn Says:

    Thank you so very much; this will be very helpful in my growth as a manager as well as help me make my department heads be more responsible.

    Carolyn Conover, Adm.

  8. Jay Tatum Says:

    Dear SG,

    I appreciate the story of the Long Goodbye. In fact, in addition to the points you’ve made, leadership requires some very self-differentiating behavior as well. This means that as leaders we have to be clear about who we are individually and collectively. I am persuaded that knowing who I am practically underwrites all other aspects of my life.

    In the story you shared there is a really good lesson to be learned from Family Systems Thinking about communications. People can’t hear us when they are moving away from us. We can’t hear them when we are moving away from them. There is more at stake here for leadership than just the communication between the nurse seeking the position and the employer who didn’t acknowledge her application and interview. Being the leader means completing the communication/feedback process. This is self-differentiating behavior. Thanks.

    Jay Tatum, M.Div.,BCC

  9. Elaine Says:

    Amen. Great reminder for the importance of how we make others feel and the cause/effect of those feelings. Thank you!


  10. Chris Says:

    The importance of communication at this time is very important.

    Imagine how the employee feels that is told her position is being downsized due to budget constraints to find a new position was added in her department. While the positions are vastly different she and the remaining staff don’t know that.

    Sometimes giving staff all of the information will generate cost savings because they are closer to “the action” — a staff member leaves and the staff brainstorms to find that the position does not need to be filled because they each can take on pieces they are comfortable with and they propose the cut.

  11. Laura Says:

    I agree with approaching, the appropriate person, whether it be an employee or upper management co-worker. However, I have been on the opposite end of the spectrum, a new CEO who is from the “Studer” group, but, may not completely understand that all the positive in the world, doesn’t change, if they (CEO), is not sure how to implement or create the change, without creating the same “we-they” mentality. You can only “Manage Up” so much, if the person you are managing up, does not fullfil their duties and expectations. Not being able to see your own mistakes and use them as a growing tool, means all the employees you are trying to build and grow, will eventually, not grow or trust you either. Take responsibility! Sometimes you gain far more respect and momentum with a little humanity, than with a swelled head.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    What do you do when you are the middle man and staff feel talking to their manager would be a waste of time or when you tell the manager someone has told you they are leaving and her response is “let them go”?

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