I’ve been thinking recently about my job. As the director of a writing and language center, I’m basically a middle manager, a term I’m defining to mean a person who works regularly with both direct reports and direct superiors, and who spends a lot of time trying to keep both parties happy. I never thought I’d have this kind of job. I was an English major who had a fairly narrow conception of what English majors eventually grow up to do (I guess I thought I was going to read novels and drink tea all day), so there are actually quite a few things in my job that I never thought would be a part of my life, such as Excel spreadsheets and HR paperwork. But this business of having to mediate between real people–that was the biggest surprise. I do think my English education helped prepare me for this work, though that’s a topic for another post. It just wasn’t on my future career landscape when I was in college.
Middle managers get a bad rap in pop culture (they are usually portrayed as frustrated middle-aged men wearing bad ties) and in the popular literature on business (doesn’t everybody want to “cut out the middleman”?). I don’t think these portrayals are fair. I prefer to conceive of my job, and others like it, as a form of interpretation or translation. People are speaking two different languages (e.g., the language of academia and the language of management), and it’s my job to help them understand each other. Perhaps an even more accurate analogy is that of a negotiator. Last week, I found myself dashing back and forth between two different people’s offices as I tried to broker a deal regarding the division of a newly constructed space between two departments. At one point I laughingly used the real estate term “counteroffer.” And I realized that, career-wise, I might have more in common with the ReMax agent who helped me buy my house last summer than with many of the other faculty members at my university. But why stop with the real estate analogy? Diplomats need this same set of skills. I don’t think it’s delusional to say that I’m in a similar career category to the people who try to make sure major world powers don’t destroy each other.
Let me share one lesson that being a middle manager has taught me. I am naturally a pessimistic person. I’ve always been a worrier. But I’ve been learning lately that we can change these traits that we think are innate. (For example, I think teaching has helped me become more extroverted.) And I think that having to mediate between two parties has helped me become more optimistic. If I’m going to convince other people that a particular arrangement can work–even if it’s not what they originally envisioned–then I have to believe that it can work. Because if I don’t believe it, they’re going to see right away that I’m just trying to sell a defective product. So I’ve learned to look for solutions instead of problems. Don’t get me wrong; we need people who see potential problems. That’s an important job. But it’s not my job. It’s my job to show you that we can all get along–because I’m a middle manager.