It’s the stage where idealism and passion are lost, where hopes stagnate and pathways to progress disappear. Its inhabitants are an organisation’s permafrost, trapped between the realities of customer demand and the aspirations of senior executives – and they are blamed both by the top team and frontline staff.
Welcome to the world of the middle manager. The appellation ‘middle’ doesn’t help; being in the middle implies being average. “The terminology is terrible,” says Steve Henry, CMI Companion, influential adman, and a co-founder of Decoded, the disruptive training company that teaches ‘coding in a day’. (Henry knows about terminology, having created Tango’s Orange Man campaign and having come up with Ronseal’s ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’ campaign.)
It’s not just a crisis of terminology, but also of technology. The imperative for flatter, horizontal company structures, the automation of processes and the breaking down of hierarchies (stoked by instant-communication tools) mean that middle managers not only face the threat of culls, but also the existential threat of irrelevance.
But hold on – not so fast. No CEO is asking to replace their middle-management layers with thousands of direct reports; the most successful organisations are those in which leadership teams recognise what makes the role valuable.
Here are eight reasons to cherish and nurture your middle-management layer.
They Make Organisations Perform Better; Really, They Do
Octavius Black is CEO and co-founder of Mind Gym, a stonkingly successful company that designs and delivers corporate learning and development programmes via 400 coaches in more than 40 countries. For him, it’s the quality of middle management that determines corporate performance.
Swap a poor manager for a good one, and you get serious productivity improvements, says Black. He cites a study by Stanford University that analysed the performance of more than 23,000 frontline workers over a four-year period: replacing a poor manager with a strong one correlated with an increase in productivity of 12%; the additional output gained by adding a new member to the team was lower, at 11%.
They Get Stuff Done
Middle managers execute strategy – they’re the people who get things done. More than that, they interpret and build out the strategy into actionable plans. That means they must understand the strategy and how it relates to the wider organisation – not just their own department or area – and be capable of providing input into the strategy.
Middle managers coordinate. “A company that has middle managers is, by definition, large enough so that individuals don’t automatically see the totality of what is happening,” notes Christoph Loch, director of the Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. Middle managers ensure that the left hand of an organisation knows what the right hand is doing. If they are not motivated to coordinate, fragmentation follows.
Middle managers lead. People on the frontline of a business have to be led, guided, motivated and rewarded – so middle managers have to know about leadership too.
They Embody Your Culture
In many cases, middle managers are the “emotional and functional memory of the organisation”, says Maggie Buggie, global sales officer of Capgemini’s digital business and a CMI Companion.
“They encapsulate the organisation’s values through their behaviour and knowledge of its processes. They personify and embody the culture of an organisation. The stories that make up an organisation are told via middle managers. Most people’s points of reference about ‘the management’ come from their interaction with middle managers.”
They Make Sure Information Is Trusted
In the old days, the middle manager controlled information flows. In modern organisations, information does not just flow from the top down or bottom up – most of it flows horizontally. So now the middle manager faces a constant wave of information and must help to structure and translate it into decision-making.
In knowledge industries, just as much as on a factory floor, middle managers are there to get the most out of scarce resources – be that productive thinking time or the efficiency of production or distribution.
So middle managers are the lifeblood of an organisation, serving as key communicators, connectors and, crucially, trust builders.
CMI’s report, The Middle Manager Lifeline, found that middle managers who trust their organisation ‘to a great extent’ are more likely to be found in organisations that are growing: “A trusting working culture is a building block for growth – and that trusting working culture is built on good communications.” It’s “a remarkable correlation”, says Buggie.
Only They Can Cascade Strategy
Technology isn’t going to automate away the link between strategy and the shop floor. “Technology won’t replace middle managers in understanding, executing and inputting into strategy,” says Loch. “It requires competence and intelligence to cascade a strategy, and to understand the interlocking parts of an organisation.”
There are many middle-management skills that require physically getting together and that can’t be replicated online. Leadership is a prime aspect. The importance of management by walking about cannot be underestimated, as The Middle Manager Lifeline report reminds us.
The survey respondents stressed the importance and value that middle managers place on leaders who engage with all and keep employees informed in an open, honest fashion. Equally, the effective middle manager provides oh-so-vital, regular face-to-face contact with employees down the chain, or external partners and suppliers.
“There’s a lot of talk about networked and diffuse organisations,” says Buggie, “but this report tells us that, even as we digitise interactions and automate processes, there remains the incredibly important role of ‘face time’, and the power of emotional and social bonds in building effective teams.”
Ultimately, says the CMI report, middle managers are critical for creating ‘civic’ engagement across the workforce – through communications, integrity, visibility, interaction and connections.
They Do Detail (Not Everyone Can Think ‘big Picture’)
“Middle managers must never be viewed as failed top managers,” says Loch. “They play an important and distinct role, doing things that top managers cannot.
“They need to have the ability to think about the strategic direction of their organisation, as well as the operational details that lie within their responsibility,” he continues. “That’s not a trivial statement.
“Every organisation has people who just focus on details and others who just think about the big picture – but the middle manager is in the middle. To do this well is very demanding. They also need the ability to work with numerous stakeholders and bring them together when their interests are not aligned.”
Unlike Senior Managers, They Build Relationships Quickly
In a fast-moving, project-based environment, team compositions can change fast. “Managers need to be able to build swift trust,” says Loch. “That means being able to establish a relationship quickly in which people trust each other sufficiently so that they can get on with the task and be successful.”
This point is emphasised by Henry. “Technology has revolutionised attitudes to business. Companies such as Google have shown that big organisations can also innovate incredibly quickly. They achieve this by having small, empowered teams and demonstrating a high tolerance for failure. Prototyping and pivoting – just constantly doing stuff – is the norm. This is the culture that middle managers have to help foster.”
Similarly, says Black, “the big change is that you may now have to manage someone whom you rarely or never meet face to face. You can’t depend on those quick catch-ups, but, instead, you have to be more structured.”
They Soothe Troubled Waters
Black reckons that there is one pre-eminent skill for all middle managers – “to rebuild, refine, nurture, correct and repair working relationships”.
And that, of course, can often be cross-border and cross-cultural, dealing and working with people with different sensibilities and outlooks. As the local interpreters of global strategy, middle managers play a pivotal role.
“Cultural awareness is a significant skill for the middle manager to learn,” says Loch.
“If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be the ability to ask better questions,” says Buggie. “Build that ability within middle managers and you get better outcomes.”
“Their new charge is to lead not by fiat, but by influence,” noted Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in a recent article in Harvard Business Review. “‘Because I said so’ doesn’t work with the current workforce. Instead of pulling rank with a subordinate or deferring to an executive, today’s middle managers must build influence and gain credibility by listening to concerns and offering context that leads to better decisions… So the middle manager’s role has become less about making sure people do what they’re told, and more about inspiring people to perform at their best.”
They must also be able to ensure that all points of view are heard. “In most organisations,” Whitehurst adds, “the biggest clue that there is disagreement in the room is when nobody says anything at all. Concerns tend to come out around the water cooler, out of management’s earshot. Middle managers can make it safe to raise objections.” That’s a moral courage that can’t be readily replaced by artificial intelligence.
It can also mean putting one’s own ego and ambition aside: the middle manager’s goal is more about the accomplishment of the team than their own personal achievement. The full potential of an organisation will only be truly unlocked by effective middle management.
“The conception of the value of the middle manager has not moved with the times,” says Buggie. For her, CMI’s The Middle Manager Lifeline report shows that “we need a rethink about their role and contribution. If you strip out those layers, you do so at your peril.”
Rather than seeing middle managers as a layer of bureaucracy, firms should concentrate on developing managers with initiative and high levels of trust. For Henry, that means creating as many autonomous, empowered teams as possible. “In a way, everyone should be in the middle,” he says.
“There needs to be greater clarity of thinking in organisations about the skills requirements of their middle-management cadres,” says Loch. “The tools exist, but that is not to say that most organisations are effectively using those channels.”
The essence of building high-quality middle managers, says Black, lies in constant iterative improvement. “It’s about little and often,” he adds. “They need to learn one small thing per month.”
Ultimately, there is a clear lesson from the ‘unsung heroism’ of effective middle managers, says Loch. A company can have very good people at the top who articulate the vision and give direction. But clear competitive advantage can’t be derived from their strategic vision alone – middle management must translate it into reality, sharpen it and improve it.
For more information about how middle managers can improve business performance, see CMI's The Middle Manager Lifeline.
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