Source: Hays Journal Issue 17 - click here for more information and to get your free copy
In many organisations, middle managers will often find the value they bring being scrutinised by both senior and junior staff. But with the right resources and training, are they actually the biggest asset available to businesses?
For many years, the roles of middle managers have come under scrutiny; whether it’s for not living up to the expectations of their leaders, or for failing the team they lead by not giving clear instruction. Furthermore, middle managers themselves have reported feeling under pressure. In fact, the UK Working Lives Report 2018 from the CIPD found that 30 per cent of mid-level professionals described their workloads as unmanageable and 28 per cent said their work negatively affects their mental health.
When used correctly, however, middle managers are, or should be, an essential part of how any business operates.
“Great middle managers build relationships with junior managers quickly, and they’re very often the ones who embody the culture of an organisation,” says Catriona Scott, Director of People, Explore Learning. “When you want to engage junior managers with a new initiative or change, middle managers will be your go-to group of people to make it happen.”
“These are the people who are held accountable for delivering results, delighting customers, implementing changes, driving employee engagement; in fact, pretty much everything to do with safeguarding the day-to-day performance of the business,” says Dr Maggi Evans, Director of Mosaic Consulting, and expert in leadership and talent. “These are typically not the visible heroes of the organisation; they do not carry the status of being leaders and their influence on future strategy is often limited. But without them, the organisation would quickly fail.”
The undervaluing of middle management is all too common – something organisations are now starting to realise, says Dr Zara Whysall, Head of Research at talent management specialists Kiddy & Partners. “For years, middle managers have been overlooked when it comes to talent management, falling into the no-man’s-land between ‘top talent’ and ‘rising stars’,” she says. This can also have a knock-on effect on wider talent management, she adds, as middle managers who are uncertain about their own career development are less likely to be able to support the progression of others.
This is compounded by a tendency to appoint the wrong people to middle management positions in the first place. “Often, middle managers are those who have achieved in a technical discipline and been promoted by way of progression,” says Robert Ordever, Managing Director of workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe. “However, emotional intelligence is a key skill in its own right. We have to take more responsibility in the way we recruit and promote to the middle management level.”
Failing to recruit the right people or value the role means organisations miss out on the value middle managers can bring, Evans believes. She describes a state of “learned helplessness”, where managers seek to conform despite having the insight and ideas that could help the business flourish.
“They may see that the objectives they’ve been set are counter-productive, that restructuring the team could reduce cost and improve customer service, or that they can massively speed things up by talking with someone in a different area,” she says.
“To tap into this, we need to switch our thinking. Instead of controlling and dictating, we need to create an environment where middle managers are genuinely empowered, where their ideas are welcomed, and where they can try things out without fear of reprimand.”
Other issues can also arise from failing to have an effective middle management team. Dan Lucy, Deputy Director, HR consultancy and research, at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says middle management is often most notable when it doesn’t work. “Change efforts often fail as a result of ineffective middle management,” he says.
“Communication and engagement efforts also often break down at this layer of management. Middle managers are bedevilled by relentless, conflicting demands and priorities, and to be successful they must learn to manage relationships effectively – upwards, downwards and across the different parts of their organisation.”
Whysall believes the whole concept of middle management needs a rebrand, to a position that is recognised as a skilled craft. “The role needs to be seen, and treated, as a destination in itself,” she says. “Ensure middle managers are benefiting from good-quality career conversations, to help them understand what they want from their careers. If they want to progress further, work out what the options are. At the same time, share succession requirements and provide clarity about what’s needed for them to move to the next level, if that’s of interest.”
The geographical culture in which organisations are based and operate can also have an impact. This is commonly the case in Colombia, according to Luiz Francisco Campos, CEO, Andino Markets (Colombia & Ecuador) of Liberty Insurance. However, he says this can be overcome through a concerted effort to change organisational culture.
"Rigid hierarchies are very common in this market, so in the last couple of years we have worked to have a much lighter structure, with the aim of improving decision-making at different levels, as well as communication, as this directly improves the empowerment of the teams.”
Charles Jennings, Co-founder of learning and development consultancy 70:20:10 Institute, advising organisations across the world on getting more from their middle managers, agrees.
“Of course, national cultural ‘ways of working’ and cultural norms impact the opportunities to support the effectiveness of middle managers,” he says. “However, organisational culture and environment is, in my experience, more important than national culture and environments.”
Jennings adds that a focus on communication is a good starting point for those looking to change. “If corporate culture lacks a culture of open, two-way communication, it is likely that middle management will suffer ‘squeeze’ and become unclear about strategic direction. This, in turn, leads to middle management being ill-equipped to set clear direction for first-level management and their teams.”
Businesses – and HR – also need to improve the way they develop middle managers. Dan Robertson, Director of diversity and organisational development specialists Vercida Consulting, suggests several key areas where managers can develop new skills.
The first is to draw on the diverse perspective of organisational stakeholders when making decisions. “This means they see their own biases and work with others to mitigate them,” he says. “They strive to see the world through the eyes of others.”
They must also develop a curiosity that can lead to questioning rather than telling people what to do. “This is one of the most critical management skills in the 21st century,” says Robertson. “Curiosity leads to questioning as opposed to telling. It requires managers to connect with colleagues in different teams and departments. This is critical when working across borders and with different cultures.”
A final point is to connect the dots in operational activity. “They need to think ahead of the problems and spot cracks in operational systems before they appear,” he says, adding that managers tend to feel most empowered when they feel part of a shared vision, listened to, and trusted to implement agreed goals.
Gordon Tinline, an independent business psychologist and author of The Outstanding Middle Manager, says that as many organisations become flatter in their structure, the more important middle managers are becoming. “As formal organisational structures increasingly become delayered, the manager or senior specialist in the middle of the hierarchy faces the threat of being more exposed to both strategic and operational pressures.
“However, they also have the opportunity to exert a greater influence on both. This is a powerful position from which to craft delivery and front-line roles and inform business direction.”
It’s important to remember that this means some will need development of their skills. Tinline identifies networking as one area that managers often need support.
“Middle managers in large organisations have got more links upwards, downwards and sideways than most other people in the organisation, but probably don’t take advantage of that,” he says.
“Managers need to learn how to use and develop networks, particularly in larger organisations, where a lot of it is influencing rather than having line-management power over someone.”
Learning to delegate is another key skill, which requires an understanding of how the different levels of management interact with each other, says Lucy from the IES. “When under pressure to deliver, senior managers may tend to ‘suck up’ power and responsibility, disempowering managers below them who then lack ownership and investment in any change, feeling that their own knowledge, experience and ideas are not valued,” he warns. “Ultimately, this means they will not be engaged and give their best in making the change happen.”
For HR professionals wondering quite where to start with improving their approach to middle management, Mosaic Consulting’s Evans has a simple suggestion. “Perhaps the best thing to do is to talk with middle managers in your organisation,” she suggests. “
Ask them what they love about their job, what frustrates them, what gets in the way of them doing their best, and what changes would make it easier for them and their teams. I don’t have the answer, but I expect your middle managers do.”