Mid-level managers have been taking flak from those they manage and those that manage them, with the role the most unhappy in an organisation. In a recent article, Hay Group explores the conditions that create the negative environment, placing the issue at the feet of senior managers that fail to properly engage their mid-level staff, fail to give them an understanding of their wider role and fail to train them towards the future.
In many ways middle managers remain indispensable to the success of a company. They not only push through the implementation of various strategic changes to front line staff for higher management, but are also charged with creating the condition in which the frontline staff continues to be engaged and motivated in their work.
In a recent article, Lubna Haq, Global Services Director at Hay Group, explores the current lot of middle managers, finding that middle managers have been much maligned. Front-line staff sees them more and more as tools of higher management, while higher managers see middle managers often fail to bring about their strategic direction, thereby acting as a key reason for implementation issues. A recent Harvard Business Review study suggests that middle managers are the unhappiest group of workers.
Theories of failure
There are a number of different theories about why middle managers are seen to be underperforming. One is that the transition from expert to middle manager and above is by no means easy, yet in recent years, the kinds of training required to step up to the task have been lacking. A recent study finds that in 2012 only 50% received any kind of formal leadership development. The development of effective leaders requires transitions to different ways of engaging with themselves and staff, and without this development they may find themselves to be ineffective leaders.
Another potential issue is the flatness of organisations; as the flat structure changes and burrs authority lines, middle managers are caught out. A third issue is the changing demographic of workers. Many young workers are not engaged with their employer, making middle mangers’ role considerably more difficult, while at the same time their expectations of their managers make it almost impossible for middle managers to succeed.
According Haq, the lack of engagement of middle management is the result of failures from upper management that turns middle managers in ‘the meat in a rather unappetising sandwich’ – where senior managers are not creating the conditions that allow middle managers to flourish.
One central issue might be that senior managers are simply not engaging with middle managers in a way conducive of long term positive outcomes. With poor communication the central issue, whereby they attempt to tell managers ‘what’ needs to be done, but fail to relate ‘why’ and ‘how’ it needs to be done.
To change this poor communication, leaders must follow three steps:
- They need to tell compelling stories about why the organisation exists, its purpose and core beliefs.
- They need to focus on how the organisation is going to achieve its strategic ambitions.
- And then, and only then, should they get to what the organisation needs to actually do.
Engaged work environment
According to the research, the reason for the order of the points is that being engaged and motivated is more than simply being told what needs to happen. To get middle managers functioning well, the article suggests that they be provided with a clear sense of purpose, understand their wider role in the bigger picture, and finally, to develop middle managers with the complex set of skills and capabilities that are required for the position as well as helping them make the next step toward more senior management positions if their capacities qualify them.