Middle Managers Will Always Be the Strategic Linchpin of Your Organization—Make Sure You Look After Them

Posted by Andrea Derler on March 8, 2018.

Middle management seems to be going out of fashion in many businesses. As organizations become flatter and senior executives want to be more involved in daily business operations, middle management is sometimes thought of as an inconvenience. Getting rid of the middle layer, some say, will help shed operating costs, enable employees to make their own decisions more often, and hence lead to higher productivity and engagement in the workforce.1

While at first glance cutting out the middleman or woman may seem like the smart thing to do, a closer examination reveals middle management remains critical to organizational success. After all, middle managers not only manage other managers (and thereby the workforce), but by doing so they translate corporate strategy into frontline execution.2 Mid-level managers are the linchpin between your company’s vision and the people who are executing on it—and this is not going to change anytime soon. The responsibilities held by middle managers include:

  • Stakeholder management. They handle multiple stakeholders and various power dynamics above and below them.3
  • Business alignment. They act as “sense makers”4 for their teams by figuring out ways to interpret and communicate company objectives to their employees.
  • Team management. They build and manage teams, which includes negotiating team dynamics and departmental politics.
  • Performance management. They manage both team and individual performance by continuously analyzing and improving their employees’ work in line with company expectations.
  • Coaching. They provide constant feedback and create coaching moments that enable team members to perform at higher levels.

Given how important these responsibilities are, middle managers are key to overall business strategy; yet research shows that middle managers often feel underappreciated5, suffer from collaborative overload6, and experience higher than normal stress levels, depression, and anxiety7. Hence, organizations clearly need to take responsibility for supporting middle managers—because their role is just too important to neglect.

The question is: what exactly can you do to support them?

Design your organization to enable performance.

Rather than blame your middle managers for building roadblocks into decision-making processes8, consider the structures and processes around them. Organizations can design these in ways that enable—rather than prevent—activities such as effective decision-making or collaboration. For example, by establishing clear guidelines around how decisions are made during the length of projects, organizations can help their managers be more transparent and consistent9 and facilitate positive effects on team success.

For example, a large multinational conglomerate uses trained facilitators at the beginning of every new project to help the team develop its own decision-making process for the period of the project. This means the team does not decide who will make the decisions, but rather agrees on the rules for how decisions will be made. this provides a strong sense of clarity around decision-making in fast-changing environments, strengthens individual accountability and empowerment, and creates informal leadership opportunities.

Similarly, organizations can use new technologies featuring organizational network analysis to identify individuals who are at risk of being overwhelmed by too many collaborative activities (e.g., meetings, emails, cross-collaborative projects). Usually, managers and leaders, high potentials, and subject-matter experts—those who are most critical to their networks—are most often affected by collaborative overload. Knowing who needs more support can help organizations redistribute certain tasks to other, more underutilized employees.

Emphasize networks over leadership programs.

Even though 71 percent of organizations currently have tailored leadership programs for midlevel managers,10 the majority rely on less-effective training methods (i.e., traditional, classroom-based). Instead, try to gain an understanding of how your managers really learn; chances are high that they need exposure to leadership learning opportunities with their network of colleagues, professionals, and thought leaders who can provide real-time coaching, feedback, and peer advice.11

Adobe, for example, creates “leadership pods”—diverse groups of leaders who meet regularly on a virtual basis. They learn about business leadership together through ongoing peer coaching and sharing leading practices. As a result of the leadership pods, program participants scored themselves higher in addressing performance issues early, seeking feedback about themselves and their teams, and conducting more frequent check-in conversations.12

New technologies with features such as video conferencing or social learning capabilities are great facilitators of such leadership learning because they can provide real-time and relevant leadership development that is embedded into managers’ everyday work.

In sum

Middle managers are likely more critical to your organization than you think. Their position in the company puts them at the pulse of your products, services, your clients, and employees. By supporting middle managers with clearer decision-making processes, learning structures that emphasize networks and connection, and technological infrastructures that accelerate access to information, organizations can take advantage of the critical leverage that middle managers offer, instead of casting middle managers as a limitation or bottleneck to organizations’ success.

Andrea Derler Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

1 “The Big Benefits of Eliminating Middle Managers,” ProfitGuide.com / Alexandra Bosanac, September 17, 2015, www.profitguide.com/manage-grow/human-resources/the-big-benefits-of-eliminating-middle-managers-90504.

2 “Caught in the Middle: Three Leading Practices for Effectively Supporting Mid-Level Managers” Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2017, http://blog.bersin.com/caught-in-the-middle-three-leading-practices-for-effectively-supporting-midlevel-managers/.

3 “Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting,” Harvard Business Review / Eric M. Anicich and Jacob B. Hirsh, March 22, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-being-a-middle-manager-is-so-exhausting.

4 “Dinosaurs or dynamos? Recognizing middle management’s strategic role,” Academy of Management Perspectives / Steven W. Floyd and Bill Wooldridge, November 1, 1994, http://amp.aom.org/content/8/4/47.abstract.

5 “Why Middle Managers Are So Unhappy,” Harvard Business Review / Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, November 24, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/11/why-middle-managers-are-so-unhappy.

6 “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review / Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, January-February 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload.

7 “Anxious? Depressed? Blame It on Your Middle-Management Position,” Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, August 19, 2015, www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/anxious-depressed-blame-it-your-middle-management-position.

8 “The Big Benefits of Eliminating Middle Managers,” ProfitGuide.com / Alexandra Bosanac, September 17, 2015, www.profitguide.com/manage-grow/human-resources/the-big-benefits-of-eliminating-middle-managers-90504.

9 High-Impact Learning Culture: The 40 Best Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise, Bersin & Associates / David Mallon, 2010.

10 High-Impact Leadership: Maturity Model Benchmarks, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.

11 The Role of Exposure in Leadership Development: How Leaders Really Learn, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.

12 Facilitating Peer-to-Peer Learning through Leadership Pods: Adobe Creates Communities of Learning to Develop Leaders at Scale, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, and Elizabeth Barisik, 2017.

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