Why middle managers are the forgotten heroes: Four ways to engage them

By David Ross, below, international strategist and founder of Phoenix Strategic Management 

It is so easy for me to remember leaving an old employer’s meeting room, years ago, gauging the reaction of my middle management colleagues to “the launch of our new strategic plan”. It had been a dry, weird one-way conversation – one where senior staff often didn’t even talk at us, rather there were a lot of in-jokes between them. It was, however, particularly easy to remember because my colleagues all had the same response as I had to the C-suite’s spiel: confusion and bewilderment. “[With a giggle and shake of the head] Don’t ask me what that was all about. But, what I can tell you is that was an hour I will never get back.”

And for me, that starts to sum up one of the big problems that organisations face; namely, that for an organisation’s strategy to succeed, senior leaders need to truly support those who play the critical role in delivery. And in many organisations, that is the humble middle manager.

The Gatekeepers of Organisational Success

Sure, many organisations may now be seeking to decentralise decision making to teams. They may be seeking to be more agile in the face of an ever more uncertain, complex, and tumultuous work environment. Nevertheless, the hierarchical organisation is not exactly an endangered species. Consequently, there are still plenty of managers stuck in the middle, arguably faced with the greatest of organisational challenges: to keep several important balls in the area.

Firstly, middle managers are tasked with supporting and supervising the majority of an organisation’s workforce – those who work at the frontline, dealing with gripes from customers, the community, or other stakeholder groups. That level of conflict to deal with regularly can be pretty demoralising.

But secondly, the bulk of strategy – or plan – delivery doesn’t lie directly in the palms of senior management. Again, it’s those modest heads-down, backsides up middle managers who do more than their fair share of heavy lifting, translating strategy into actions and communication to gain commitment from their teams.

That workload can be brutal. There needs to be a better way for so many middle managers. They need support, seeking to transcend “that’s the way we do things around here”. They need to be engaged through, quite frankly, removing an array of obstacles to make their lives easier.

Leveraging Your Organisation’s Strengths

For your middle managers to thrive, fortunately, you have several levers at your disposal. It’s not about pulling one lever at a time but rather, being mindful that each lever can make a large contribution to enhancing the lives of middle managers and indeed, can reinforce the efforts of one another.

What could be holding your middle managers back? Well, let’s examine the ways that you can take advantage of the levers that an organisation has available:

  • CULTURE: Eating Good Ideas for Breakfast for Ages. Culture is the elephant in the room that must be considered when trying to proactively support middle managers shift from surviving to thriving. If your organisation is hierarchical in nature, well, there’s a big problem in its own right. You see, one of the deeper beliefs in hierarchical cultures is that the more senior you are, the more control that you are expected to have. Compare this to the need to decentralise control and decision making in response to operating in an uncertain, complex, and polarised world.

To shift culture will take time but, for example, what new rituals could be created to emphasise the importance of your middle managers? How can you embed a chance in deeper beliefs?  Importantly, each of the other levers can be called on in this regard.

  • PEOPLE: Enable Managers to Be the Best That They Can Be. Middle managers are often passionate people seeking to do the best that they can, except with outdated skills. You probably promoted them because you saw how they excelled at employing their technical skills. However, middle management is something else. It is a leap that requires building new skills, including people management skills. And critically, that means appreciating that the skills that propelled them to “here” won’t be the skills that successfully launch them into a successful managerial career.

Therefore, making the leap requires consideration by you of what development your middle managers require according specifically to the context faced. Certainly, development of their emotional intelligence is critical when it comes to managing teams and relationships in their chaotic environment. For that matter, so is problem solving, agility, and conflict resolution. But, a word of caution: don’t anticipate that, because you sent them to some cookie-cutter course they will then quickly translate the learnings into new habits once they return to business-as-usual.

Instead, they need follow up. They need greater commitment from you or their supervisors in the form of mentoring, particularly soon after they return from training to ensure that they are breaking the old habits in the months following. Alternatively, coaching may be necessary,

  • SYSTEMS: Remove the Admin Humdrum. Oh, the number of times that I have seen middle managers driven to almost bang their head on the desk in frustrated response to the amount of time spent filling out electronic paperwork. That part of their week is often onerous or the systems, themselves, are just so user-unfriendly.

Either find additional resources to take the load off their plate or use a middle management-centred approach to redesigning systems. Certainly, systems may be required for legislative, safety, or quality management requirements. But, systems should always focus on the needs of people not the other way around.

  • LEADERSHIP: It Starts With You. I bet you still have memories of your own experience as a middle manager. It could just be nuts, right?! For me, retention of those memories can be an important starting point for how you make the lives of your own direct reports easier.

To engage them, they need to feel understood and supported. They need to feel heard. Subsequently, your own emotional intelligence and communication is critical to them reaching their full potential.

Are you listening – and listening deeply to them? Have you clearly communicated to them how their work and that of their teams contributes to your SME’s overarching vision and strategy? Could they come to you with problems?

Certainly, providing them with the resources that they need is also critical. Perhaps a key question for you to constantly reflect on is “What am I doing that could be holding them back?” Because to have highly engaged middle managers, it starts and ends with you.

David Ross is an international strategist, founder of Phoenix Strategic Management and author of Confronting the Storm: Regenerating Leadership and Hope in the Age of Uncertainty