Why businesses need to rebrand middle management

Middle manager at work
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Here’s the middle management challenge affecting many of today’s organisations: as flatter structures have become more the norm, the all-important middle has become increasingly neglected.

Indeed, 38% of UK directors say their organisation is ‘paralysed’ by ineffective middle management and 40% identify it as the single greatest barrier to achieving company objectives. So now is the time to change this.

So why are organisations failing to maximise this valuable layer of contribution and opportunity?  More than ever, employees expect meaningful and well managed work, regular two-way communication, opportunities to develop on the job, and clear visibility of potential career paths, to name but a few wish-list items.

And from a business perspective, effective middle management is fundamental for successful implementation of change and realisation of strategic objectives.

With their critical role in making all of this happen, how do we transform middle management into a desirable career destination in itself? It’s time to dispel the perception of the middle as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else – or worse, a dead end where people tend to get stuck.

So what does ‘the middle’ actually mean?

This catch-all – sometimes negatively weighted – term tends to be defined by structure. It’s typically two levels below the CEO and one level above first-line supervisor. Middle managers will ultimately be responsible for translating organisational strategy into action, and of ensuring that their team(s) have the right capabilities for effective delivery. The reality is often different.

We find that that middle managers often aren’t equipped with the time, resources, or skills to enable others, and instead often remain ‘doing the doing’.  Sometimes it’s a matter of resource – managers not having enough people to delegate tasks to – but often it’s because of (or at least exacerbated by) managers’ own reluctance to let go.

You need to be clear about why your middle managers are there (as do they!). What is the real value that they provide?

This reluctance can be driven by lack of clarity about what their management role should actually entail, and/or a lack of confidence in doing people management.  Naturally, you stick to what you know and what you’re good at. And many managers don’t feel equipped to manage well: 98% of managers believe managers at their company need more management training.

What’s more, despite their critical role in organisational effectiveness and performance, middle managers are often overlooked in terms of talent development and rarely considered ‘talent’ themselves.

In this space, caught between the ‘top talent’ and ‘rising stars’, we see the middle at risk of being left behind, as organisations de-prioritise career conversations with people at this stage in their career and start focusing on the next layer.

Why it’s time to rebrand the middle

Our research has revealed a strong requirement to reboot the image of middle management. So what’s needed to achieve this? A starting point is a shift in mindset and skillset, to ensure that middle managers become masters of their craft and, in turn, that the value of really effective middle management becomes clear to all.

And for HR leaders, this means providing full support of the middle to enable them to fulfil their potential. We need to give them the resources they need as key enablers of organisational performance.

Transforming the middle

For HR leaders, the question is where to begin? Here’s what we find works:

Start with why

You need to be clear about why your middle managers are there (as do they!). What is the real value that they provide? You also need to know what they want from their careers. Do they see this as a stepping stone or – for their own reasons – as a destination?

Have they made an active choice to get here, or are they in fact frustrated and disengaged due to a lack of skills and opportunity to progress? If they want to progress further, work out what the options are. Equally, if they want to stay, develop the role to promote improvement and professional development.

Foster a mind-set shift

This will help unlock changes in the minds of managers and the rest of the business, who need to be mindful of not seeing the middle as problematic, but instead as essential enablers.

Be clear on the career paths available

Ensure your managers know where current and future opportunities are for themselves and their line reports. Provide resources to support better line-management conversations and support mobility along different career pathways.

Empowerment is the most effective way to reboot middle management.

Sharing succession plans explicitly is important, to ensure they understand what’s needed from them to move to the next level, if desired. Define the key capabilities and devise any strategies to meet these.

Create lateral development opportunities

Opportunities can be created through rotations and secondments to build a breadth of experience. Building communities of practise works well and adds depth too. A key to rebranding the middle is recognising management excellence as a distinct pathway in its own right, separate to technical or leadership pathways.

Support the middle to enable others

Empowerment is the most effective way to reboot middle management, realising their potential as a centre of authority and management excellence. So support them to enable others. Ensure your managers have the resources they need to effectively manage performance.

Signal the importance of mobility and your organisation’s expectations so they too can have career conversations with their team and know how to foster talent mobility and development, maximising your organisation’s full human capital potential.

About Zara Whysall

Dr Zara Whysall

Zara Whysall is Head of Research at Kiddy, where she is responsible for conducting research to evaluate the impact of Kiddy’s client work, and for producing evidence-based insight papers to support clients with key challenges. She has a wealth of experience in conducting and applying research to help organisations enhance their performance.

Zara is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, with experience in consultancy, research, and training roles in private and public sector organisations.  Zara is also a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.  Her research spans a range of areas influencing performance and wellbeing at work, including presenteeism, talent management and development.

She has a PhD from Loughborough University, a Masters in Occupational Psychology from Nottingham University, and a BSc (First-class Hons) in Human Psychology from Aston University.

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26th Jul 2018 10:48

Zara, thanks for this useful piece. It has long infuriated me how some CXOs and lower-level managers and staff unthinkingly blame all failure on middle managers. I have written about this myself in the context of middle managers in IT, but this piece gave me some new insights, so a big "thank you".

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