2.17.2008

Stuck in the middle

I once worked with a guy who always responded the same way whenever "middle management" was mentioned. He'd say: "Tyranny from above, mutiny from below."

That's an apt description of the middle management squeeze, where you're constantly crushed between the demands of your superiors and the recalcitrant foot-dragging of the troops. The boss wants everything done yesterday. The workers want everything put off until tomorrow. In between stands the middle manager, pointing in both directions like the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz."

Work-at-home parents like me are the middle managers of the household. When it comes to mutiny, my two sons make the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty look like wanna-bes. And tyranny? Well, it certainly doesn't come from my wife. Nosiree. (I'd like to sleep in my own bed tonight.) It comes from the daily demands of the home front.

Laundry, for instance, is its own little tyranny of repetition, to be ignored at my peril. It never goes away. As soon as I get it finished, I get to do it all over again. And if I fail, it punishes me by making me wear crunchy socks. How's that for a tyrant?

Most housework is just spinning your wheels. Every time you eat, there are more danged dishes to wash. Vacuum the floors and the dog arrives, carrying a fresh load of dirt and dead grass, and rolls on the carpet. Mow the lawn, and it's knee-deep again before you can run back into the house.

The only way to keep a house clean and tidy is to keep it vacant.

Then there's the daily schedule. That's where I most feel the middle manager squeeze. My desk calendar is covered with items every day. Work that must be accomplished on deadline. Dental appointments. Haircuts. Piano lessons. Social engagements. More work.

The schedule is my boss, the real tyrant around here. And it's the cause of much of the mutiny as well.

When my sons are home, I have company as I frantically run around town, trying to hit all my appointments. Assuming we get out the door at all. I spent much of their childhoods standing in the foyer, yelling about how we're going to be late.

The boys respond just as workers everywhere do to the urgent demands of their middle managers. They act confused by my agitation. They begin to move in slow motion. They can't find their shoes. (OK, maybe that one's not a good analogy to the workplace.) Faced with a deadline, they freeze up. And if anything (and I mean anything) doesn't go their way, they go on strike. Then I'm left explaining to the spouse/dentist/barber/piano teacher why we can't ever keep our appointments. Just like a middle manager.

I've had many projects due recently, and the resulting tight schedule (tyranny) has meant that I've left the boys to their own devices for hours at a time (mutiny). Thumps and shouts from the far reaches of the house call for my attention, but the tyrant wants the work done, and I refuse to rise to the mutiny unless there are actual screams of pain. I'm torn because I'd like to go play with them, but the work must be done. Besides, if I tried to join their reindeer games, they'd suspect that I really wanted them to do something (like housework) and the whole transaction would take on the testiness of a labor negotiation.

Middle managers often feel that way, wanting to be one of the gang, but always set apart by their shaky authority. The workers would rather play. The middle manager must make them do the responsible thing so the tyrant will stop chewing on his neck.

There's one other way work-at-home parents resemble middle managers: We often have to "run it upstairs." The little mutineers make demands for improved living conditions ("Buy me a new computer") and we homebound middle managers do the same as our peers in real jobs. We explain about budget constraints and say we'll check with our superiors to see if such expenditures can be warranted.

Only at home, we say it this way: "Ask your mother."

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

steve
Great post and double birthday wishes to you and your Mum, I know your's was a few weeks back but go for the double
best
Ken

STEVE BREWER said...

Thanks, Ken!

Mike said...

Thanks for making me even more depressed about Monday morning and my middle manager job. :)

STEVE BREWER said...

Could be worse, Mike. You could be teaching kindergarten.

Steve