The Missing Link: How Middle Managers Are the Key to Business Success

Friday 28 October 2016
Implementing company initiatives, supervising deadlines and fostering innovative and creative environments, middle managers play an often underrated and undervalued key role in the performance of small, medium and large businesses
Puzzle Missing Piece

In the age of the celebrity CEO, chief executives are often looked upon by the media, investors and the public as the main cause of the successes and failures experienced by an organisation.

But while executives do play a significant role in setting the overall direction of the company, middle managers are arguably just as significant, as they decide which individual projects are selected, how the associated tasks are allocated and how they are run.

CMI’s The Middle Manager Lifeline study found that middle managers act as vital pivot points within companies, filtering and linking the communication between senior bosses and subordinates and creating a trusting environment.

These are essential qualities for building a successful company.

According to the survey, middle managers recognise their importance in building trust within their teams, with four out of five middle managers believing they are very important in building a trusting workplace culture.

“If leaders are trusted by their middle managers, those who report into those middle managers will trust them too. If middle managers have neither the information nor the belief in the organisation’s leadership, transitive trust will inevitably be broken. Such a disconnect has a corrosive effect throughout the organisation – not just between the top and the middle,” the report states.

Key to Organisational Communication

At the heart of creating and maintaining a trusting office atmosphere is to ensure constant communication and engagement between all levels of the organisation. Identified in the CMI report as “upwards and downwards communications”, good communication is a two-way process, and middle managers have a responsibility to ensure that information flows effectively both up and down the organisation.

Upwards communications is the interactions between middle management and senior/executive management. When done correctly, this relationship sees senior leaders demonstrate active listening and consideration for the views of the line managers before explaining the decisions they have reached and the potential impact on the team.

In return, middle managers are obliged to take instruction from senior managers, and respect why certain managerial decisions need to be made, such as cost cutting and staff redundancies, within the wider scope of the company’s business objectives.

Almost two-thirds of middle managers (64%) believe that they have the opportunity to communicate ideas and opinions with their leadership team.

However, a substantial minority express significant frustration with how upwards communications operates in their organisation.

Only 37% of middle managers agree that their leadership team is transparent in their decisions and actions and less than half (48%) believe that their leadership team makes communication with line managers a priority.

Nearly one-third (32%) of middle managers don’t think that they are given opportunities by their senior leadership team to provide feedback and challenge the organisation’s approach and a similar proportion (31%) do not believe that their leadership team works hard to gain and/or keep their trust, or that their leadership team works closely with them to communicate their vision and business strategy.

“People need to believe the delivered content rather than trying to guess the hidden agenda,” was how one respondent put it.

What Effect Does This Have on the Company?

On the other side of the coin, there is downward communication, relating to the relationship between middle managers and their teams.

Based on close and frequent contact between managers and employees, the trust managers are able to create between themselves and their teams is crucial in fostering wider trust in the organisation as a whole, the CMI survey concluded.

For many middle managers, their role will entail leading a team of frontline staff who carry out the key practical roles in the company, from cold-call salesmen in a sales department to a machine operator at a production plant.

More than three quarters (76%) of middle managers say they are expected to communicate and engage their teams with company information – typically updates on business performance and priorities, key departmental updates, business initiatives, and business/organisational strategy.

A failure from managers to incorrectly and incompetently communicate the directives of the company’s leadership can lead to disruption and a disconnection across the workforce, potentially stunting productivity, efficiency and morale.

As one survey respondent explained: “There needs to be trust, openness and transparency. If senior leaders mislead line managers, their teams become demoralised.

“This leads to disengagement.”

GS is a senior director in a multinational technology company, one of his main duties is implementing the vision, direction and purpose set out by the CEO. Holding quarterly calls with more than 300 employees, who he is responsible for, and monthly manager calls, GS says his frequent discussions with his teams help to maintain levels of trust when the decisions taken at the centre have an impact on local teams.

He said: “As a global business, we are not greatly impacted by the performance of individual local economies. But our business results can have an impact. They will directly flow into actions that can affect our people, such as a push for headcount reduction. This can make my life harder in engendering trust.”

Therefore, it is surprising, and perhaps damning, that 24% of respondents to the CMI study say that they are not communicating company information to employees, with only 31% feeling very confident passing on organisational strategy to their teams.

The report suggests this self-confidence problem may derive from poor upwards communication.

Some 59% say that they are able to provide constructive feedback and challenge their boss, a meagre 9% of middle managers report that they are always asked for input or feedback on the information with which they are provided.

Indeed, more than one-third (35%) are seldom or never asked for their feedback on this information.

Find out more about how you can boost the core strength of the middle managers in your company by downloading the full report from CMI