Management is dead! Long live management!

11 August 2017 -

middle managerSome have called for a thinning of management to improve agility and innovation. But is this really the end of middle managers

Guest bloggers Nicolas Arnaud and Thibaut Bardon

In 2008, Gary Hamel used his book, The End of Management, to call for a thinning of management levels. Today, the so-called 'corporate liberation' movement, consultants, management gurus and even some academics are also arguing that businesses can become more agile and innovative by slashing the number of middle managers and instead asking employees to manage themselves.

The central argument is that middle managers slow down a firm's quest for agility and creativity because they are often a redundant link that favours silos. It is therefore argued that they reduce companies’ responsiveness by making the chain of decision longer and so stifling employees’ initiative with rules and operating procedures that are often left wanting.

This approach stems from a belittling vision of the role of the manager. Such a vision is based on three stereotypical roles born in the past which suggest that middle managers hold back managerial innovation.

First, there is the manager to whom the term ‘jobsworth’ could perhaps be applied. A manager of this kind, it is said, is only good at overseeing operational teams in order to strictly enforce procedures.

Next we have the ‘experts’ who explain how tasks should be done but often cannot do them themselves.

Finally, the ‘HR assistant’ who not only treats teams like children by giving good or bad marks but also introduces hierarchies at every level that are neither effective nor legitimate.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

We must realise that the leaders who adopt this narrative are often those who have themselves for years assigned these three roles to their firm’s managers. Moreover, many middle managers say they do not have the room to manoeuvre that would allow them to make a real impact on their organisation. This is often because their opinion is not taken into account enough, their decisions are not supported by their leaders and they do not have the autonomy required.

This narrative is thus partly self-fulfilling. It legitimises attitudes and practices among employees and managers who then do not allow middle managers to be a source of added value.

At the individual level, the build-up of daily frustrations creates a real commitment crisis for middle managers. Research published in Harvard Business Review in 2014 by Zenger and Folkman even suggests that the most disengaged employees are middle managers themselves. Another study suggests that more than a third of middle managers would no longer be willing to play this role (Cadréo study). Beyond disengagement, it appears that middle managers are more often victims of high anxiety or depression compared to employees in operational positions or other management posts.

At the collective level, middle managers’ strong disengagement can clearly have very detrimental effects on company performance. Middle managers’ who lack commitment have a negative impact on the teams working under them.

Middle managers – drivers of managerial innovation

Our research shows that middle managers can in fact be the driving force behind managerial innovation.

A two-year study concerning a French firm showed that when the same major change in the management structure was applied to two business units, they did not encounter the same success. One of the business units ended 20% less efficient than the other and during the process had to deal with a high level of absenteeism, low productivity and difficulties in recruiting employees.

The main difference in how the change had been implemented at the business units was the way the managers of those units had accompanied this evolution. Whereas the manager of unit A had strictly applied the guidelines defined by headquarters, the manager of unit B had adapted the system when necessary, while still respecting the spirit of the required evolution. He therefore took it as an opportunity to both meet the national objectives and the local constraints while addressing employees’ concerns. This is a core role of middle managers, acting as translators of global imperatives with a local process in mind.

Indeed, middle managers are perhaps best placed to drive innovation because they are at the heart of the firm. At the crossroads of many issues, they act as an interface between multiple stakeholders. In daily contact with operational staff, management teams and customers it is they who can best unite the competing demands of visionary thinking and practical delivery as they have a detailed understanding of the challenges.

In addition, their interface position is increasingly required in today’s organisations where information-sharing keeps growing, yet what is shared is more uncertain, complex and volatile. Due to the fragmentation of internal and external corporate boundaries we need, more than ever before, people with the skills and knowledge needed to build bridges between all those involved.

Middle managers establish trust

Finally, middle managers often succeed in forging a special relationship of trust and proximity with the operational players. In this way they can mobilise their teams better than higher management can. They thus have the potential to create the collective dynamics which should improve a firm’s performance.

We should therefore avoid letting the current crisis among middle managers persuade us that we must reduce their number or get rid of them altogether. Instead, we must change the way we understand their role. To do this, we need to abandon the visions of the past embodied in the myth of the end of management. Management is dead! Long live management!

Nicolas Arnaud is associate professor in management at Audencia Business School and director of Audencia Grande Ecole

Thibaut Bardon is associate professor in management at Audencia Business School