Why Top Bosses Often Perform Worse Than Middle Managers
A lack of criticism for senior leadership can lead to inferior results, new research findsJermaine Haughton
A combination of fear and unconditional support can lead to high-status managers delivering less successful projects than lower-ranking managers because colleagues are less willing to critique their ideas and management, a new workplace management study has found.
Balazs Szatmari, who conducted the PhD thesis research at the Rotterdam School of Management in 2016, found that middle managers typically produced the best results as they received the critical feedback that allowed them to perform better than their high-status counterparts.
The research, which focused on project managers in the gaming industry, selected 349 projects from an online database that documents the development of video games since 1972, and for which a single project leader - or producer - could be identified.
Szatmari’s study revealed that projects from project leaders with very high organisational status are typically of the same quality as projects run by low status producers, but the variation in in the quality of the overall project is much bigger.
On average, middle-ranking status project leaders deliver projects with the highest quality, the report found.
The quality of the video game projects was calculated based on a number of factors including customer reviews, the project’s budget, how innovative it was and whether it surpassed expectations.
While the status of high-profile managers often allows them to get the benefit of the doubt as to the way they implement their strategies, Szatmari found that medium-status managers had the advantage as they received significantly more feedback on the weaknesses and limitations of their project, and more time than a high-status project manager to work on any issues.
CMI heard of research and communications Patrick Woodman said: “This research highlights the importance of senior leaders creating an environment where challenge and constructive criticism is not only possible, but is welcomed.
“Teams with rigid hierarchies and too much emphasis on who has formal authority face the risk of stifling debate and discussion, which can result in mistakes, misjudgements and lead to worse outcomes.”
Constructive criticism = Performance optimisation
Constructive criticism is a crucial tool for top managers and companies to boost communication, performance and results throughout their business, but was often found to be lacking in the projects led by more senior leaders.
Szatmari, now at the University of Amsterdam, says managers who can effectively ‘skip’ the evaluation processes based on their reputation alone can get away with bad ideas or poor execution, causing longer term problems for their employers. .
“Companies should really bear this issue in mind when deciding who should lead projects,” he said. “Just as subordinates are careful not to beat the boss at golf, middle-managers are less likely to call their superior’s judgment into question on projects they are leading.
“When evaluating projects early on, managers should make sure that they like the project itself and not just the individual that is leading it.”
Szatmari’s findings add further weight to CMI’s own The Middle Manager Lifeline report, which identified a clear issue with the communication styles of business leaders and the widespread mistrust of senior managers.
With only 36% of the 1,456 middle managers surveyed fully trusting their senior leaders, the findings suggest a significant breakdown in communication that is also corroding wider employee trust in organisations, with four in five middle managers believing that staff lack full trust in their CEO.
The CMI report showed that fast-growing organisations are four-and-a-half times more likely to report a high degree of trust between middle and senior management, while 85% of business leaders and managers agree trust is critical to business performance.
Organisations need to have open channels of communication where constructive thought and questioning is encouraged and ideas and proposals are freely discussed.
Rather than more traditional command and control structures, which rely on all of the decisions in a company to be made from the top, an accountability and authority management framework is typically more suitable for maintaining cohesion and trust within an organisation.
This requires each manager in the organisation to have appropriately delegated accountability and authority, and the context to make decisions and take initiatives in ways that are consistent with the wider business strategy.