The Frozen Middle is the term used to describe the mid-level bureaucrats who won’t let innovation through and are stuck in “but this is how we’ve always done it.” There’s probably a better definition, but I’ve put my own filter on it and this is how it comes out whenever I make a minimum effort to define it.
But there’s actually something worse than an overtly Frozen Middle, and that’s a passive-aggressive one.
The secretive one.
The disingenuous one.
The one you can’t plan around because they sure look like real supporters.
Termites. That’s the word a retired Colonel colleague of mine uses to refer to them. As “the termites eating away at your ship below the waterline.”
You know, those people who nod and smile to your face and do the opposite when you turn around. They’re the ones who will wait out innovative leaders or come up with a gazillion reasons not to do something quite yet…and it never gets done at all.
TIP: If someone tells you to “slow down,” be sure they don’t actually mean, “STOP!!!!!!” without ever having to admit later that they squashed your attempts to get something done.
Frozen Middle in Disquise
These are the people who are Inertia Personified. They’re also the ones who sabotage progress, often anonymously.
As much as I dislike the Frozen Middle, I’d much rather they be open about their refusal to allow innovation and honest about their reasons. If I know that, then at least I know what I’m fighting and maybe how to influence a better outcome or a compromise.
It’s the slow-rolling passive-aggressives and gas-lighters that make me cringe.
I’m somehow always surprised when I see them as they really are because I’m just, bleh, open my mouth and the world as I see it comes out. I cannot bring myself to do the Yes-Man thing. Even if it’s unpopular, I’m going to tell you how I see it because to me, that’s honest and then we can work with it, as opposed to hiding an opinion in order to do harm or to fit in or to get that promotion. I just never think that way. Don’t ask my opinion or read my advice if you don’t want candid.
Some years ago, I had a Systems Program Office director who was furious at me, the Lead Contracting Officer, for refusing to do something. I wasn’t frozen and I wasn’t trying to make life hell for my team. Trust me, if I want to make life hell, I’ll do it in a way that’s fun for me, not one that’s miserable for us all. I tried–I really did–to make it happen. I wrote a 30-page-long, detailed analysis of the situation with all applicable regs and policies, and a recommendation that was praised throughout the high rise I worked in.
There was just one teeny weeny problem: I couldn’t legally do what the FAR said, and for the craziest reason. I didn’t have the authority, and I couldn’t take the authority. The FAR and statute didn’t match up; the FAR part actually was later rewritten to clarify a term that had different meanings. I thought I had an answer to my SPO’s very big problem because I wasn’t reading the statute. Not something a Contracting Officer normally does because normally the reg matches the statute and you don’t have to verify that it matches–Shudder.
I ran it by legal counsel and several AFIT professors who were experts in this area and then had to tell my SPO director and the rest of the Program Office that it was a no-go. And why. I was probably the biggest supporter of what the director wanted to do, but I just could NOT do it that way legally.
The director stood up and walked out of the conference room, jaw so tight it would pop in another second. Refused to speak to me for days except to complain to my supervisor and division chief, neither of whom would tell the director that it couldn’t be done.
You know the old advice that you should never tell the boss it can’t be done that way? I understand the sentiment, but it’s not always honest and it keeps you from moving ahead to figure out a real solution vs misleading the boss while being a team player.
I guess I couldn’t really blame the director. The director heard exactly what the director wanted to hear, because that’s exactly what the Yes-Men and Head-Nodders said. At least 50 people sat with us in those meetings and insisted that I as a Contracting Officer could do it if only I tried harder. There was no one who tried harder, and harder didn’t make it legal. I was a believer, but I still couldn’t do it legally.
My point is, this director received plenty of advice from others around us who knew how important it was to fix the problem…which would actually have required an act of Congress. There were some alternatives that were doable but the preferred resolution wasn’t anything I could sign. For some reason, people think that when you’re a renegade, you’re willing to cross legal or ethical lines, too, but even renegades have a code. Every time we met on this subject, all the director’s Yes-Men–none of whom would have to sign anything at all–gave assurances that I could find a way to solve the problem the desired way, the way we had already determined wasn’t legal.
It really felt like it was me against the world, with the exception of my local legal counsel backing me up. It wasn’t that the decision to resolve the problem with a YES was illegal, just one particular process for implementing the YES because the regulatory language didn’t match the statutory language. Ugh. So close but so….not legal.
Did I mention the one desired process wasn’t legal? Or that it didn’t pass my personal test of being able to explain to my elderly mom back on the farm what I was doing with her tax dollars?
I was miserable. It’s probably the only assignment I ever truly hated, but what happened next was one of the biggest surprises of my career because it crushed my idealism. I found out I wasn’t alone, and that Yes-Men aren’t always Yes-Men, and that some apparent Yes-Men can sabotage the outcome. Not sabotage me, but sabotage the boss who thinks those Yes-Men are a reflection of everything that boss intends to bring to fruition.
I sat alone in the director’s conference room, elbows on the table, chin in my palms. It was a no-win situation for me, and it seemed during the last meeting that everyone was as mad at me as the director. I was much younger then, and naïve about what people can do to sabotage an outcome.
That’s when one of the engineers who’d been exceedingly harsh toward me in front of the director came in and sat down alone with me. “It’s a good thing you didn’t cave under pressure,” he said to me in hushed tones.
I wish I had a picture of the look on my face.
“I completely disagree with what the director wants,” the World’s Best Yes-Man continued. “If you had signed that document, I was going to go back to my desk and call ’60 Minutes’ to come investigate you. This would have blown up all over the news. Either way, [the solution] was never going to happen. If you hadn’t stopped it, I would have.”
He walked out, still a favorite of the boss, but I was stunned. I was the one who supported the action, even though I couldn’t legally sign it. He was one of the director’s most vocal fans, or seemed to be, yet he had actively plotted to torpedo the boss’ plans. It was a jaw-dropping lesson for me.
Mid-level managers and leaders can put on an enthusiastic face to senior leaders…or to innovators…and either kill or slow-roll an initiative until it never produces. I have more than once in the last 5 years heard mid-level managers who were definitely The Frozen Middle tell an unwanted customer how supportive they were and how hard they were working on something…only to intentionally slow-roll an effort that needed fast-tracking until the lead times were ridiculously slow and the customer had to make other plans if they wanted the work done. On the outside, it appeared that everyone was working toward a common goal, but the snail-like progress was intentional and certainly not rapid.
So next time the Frozen Middle flat out tells you NO!, be grateful that they are being open with you. This gives you a chance to dig deep and find out their concerns, maybe even mitigate those concerns and make some progress. What you don’t want is for them to look you in the eye and convince you they aren’t the Frozen Middle, while sabotaging every step you take.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
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