Greeting Middle Managers!

Note: Last week, I committed to focusing on middle managers, which group makes up 58% of Linked In's 380 million worldwide members. Also, last week, my focus on "Who is on Linked In" received a bit of attention; 1440 views, 109 "Likes," and 20 comments. Coupled with another article I wrote about cultural change beginning in the middle which garnered over 9,200 views, and 355 "Likes," I have thus deduced that there is an appetite for a focus on middle managers. QED? As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.
Is this, then, the end?

In 2011, the Harvard Business Review predicted the end of the Middle Manager. This theory is largely predicated on two factors; the shift in generations in the workplace to Gen Y (Millennials) as the dominant group and technology actually becoming the substitute for middle managers. 

HBR's POV is that: (1) Millennials see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect. Someone, in other words, who is a master—not a middle manager. (2) Technology itself has become the best general manager. It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations. Plus, thanks to the internet and search engines, everyone now knows or can know something about everything. There is little competitive advantage in being a jack-of-all-trades manager when your main competitor might be Wikipedia.

No so fast, Batman!

Even though all signs point toward a movement to flat-line corporate structures, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. What if we were to redefine the role of middle managers to one of that as leaders?

We know that technology can be very threatening to middle management. The reverse is often true as well. It is time to look beyond the past and conceive of a new relationship between the two, particularly in the digital world. Why? Because the dynamics of digital demands a new style of leadership that middle management is well positioned to deliver if middle managers would only stop being administrators and become real managers.

Who are these people we call Middle Managers?

Middle management is a broad category fitting between the level below executive and above first line supervisor. Middle managers form the bulk of what some would call corporate bureaucracy. But are they? How does digital change the role and importance of middle management?

Middle management has been the punching bag for business for a long time. They are usually the first place executives look when it is time to put a focus on ‘streamlining’ operations. In addition, with middle management positions rooted in its current mind state, it is easy to see middle management as the barrier for change and therefore a barrier for the ever increasing move toward digital business.

Organizational theorists study the role of middle management in communicating and coordinating operations across the modern corporation. Middle management was the human conduit in the organization. What good are human conduits when technology can place the same information in everyone’s hands simultaneously?

Before you just throw middle management out, I believe that the future of middle management in the digital age is in a unique style of leadership based on the changes created by being digital.

From administering in the middle of the ladder to leading at the center of everything

Middle managers must change their position in a digital world or risk a new type of redundancy – situational redundancy. This requires a new attitude for managers to move from being administrators to leaders. The digital world requires managers move from being in the middle of a hierarchy, managing a fixed team of people and activities – to the middle of a network managing flexible resources to achieve customer and company outcomes.

Success in middle management evolves with digital from counting the number of people you manage to the span of your influence, involvement and leadership in achieving results. Fortunately for middle managers, these new measures fit well with advances in analytics-based reporting and performance management.

Making the move from administration to leadership changes the nature of middle managements role and power. Middle managers stand to gain much from digital as the pace of change, complexity and agility requirements changes the nature of management’s leadership power - and this can be significantly greater if they play it right.

It is easy to call for the end of middle management, particularly when technology disrupts their core administration role. What we really need are fewer administrators and more managers with the ability to bridge between strategic objectives and tactical transformation. 

What to do, what to do?

Quite often, when middle managers fall short, senior leadership may be to blame. In fact, a January 2015 study by Vanderbilt University discovered poor senior-level managers can influence middle managers to become poor managers, as well.

When senior managers treat middle managers poorly, there’s a chain reaction. Middle managers then treat their employees poorly, leading unhappy employees to leave the company.

Don’t treat middle managers like forgotten middle children. Here are some ways to improve middle management leadership, engagement and satisfaction:

1. Improve training.

When it comes to leadership training, middle managers are often left out. Many organizations invest resources in training new managers and strengthening senior managers but neglect to continue developing the skills of the middle managers.

In a survey of 600 U.S. employees conducted by SHRM in August 2013, middle-management employees were less satisfied with professional development programs provided by their employers than executive management employees.

With a high volume of work and little leadership training, middle managers are left to do what they feel is best and model what they see. Extending leadership development programs to include managers of all levels using a model where leaders learn from each other.

The 2013-14 Benchmarking study conducted by 'Towards Maturity' found that 86 percent of employees surveyed learn what they need to know from work by collaborating with others. What’s more, in a 2014 study conducted by researchers from the Harvard Business School, employees who reflected on their performance and shared their experiences with others learned more and improved their performance.

In a re-imagined training program, senior managers can train middle managers, and middle managers can reinforce their skills by training new managers.

Mentorship programs can also help improve leadership development. Middle managers can mentor upcoming leaders while receiving advice from their own senior mentor.

2. Relieve stress.

Not only are middle workers under trained, but they're also overworked.

report published in the June 2013 issue of Health Service and Delivery Research found that middle managers in healthcare work with limited resources and have increasing workloads that demand long hours.

However, this phenomenon is hardly limited to the healthcare industry. With the pressure of keeping key components of an organization running, middle managers must complete challenging tasks under a great amount of stress.

But neglecting a work-life balance takes a toll on staff and the organization as a whole. Stress is related to multiple health conditions, and a 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association found workplaces are the biggest source of stress.

Although employers want hardworking staff, working too hard without any downtime is unhealthy for employees and the bottom line. In an analysis conducted in 2014 on behalf of Project: Time Off, Oxford Economics found that unused vacation time has accumulated $224 billion in liabilities for private American companies.

Prevent burnout among middle managers by helping to mitigate their stress. Check in with them on a weekly basis to see what resources are needed.

Consider providing stress-relieving perks like gym memberships, reduced working hours on Fridays and happy hours with the team. Strongly encourage and remind them to take their vacation time -- they need to rest and recharge to function at their best.

3. Provide feedback.

Middle managers may feel lost because they don’t know how they’re doing.

In a 2014 survey of more than 2,700 employees at companies in 27 countries conducted by SAP and Oxford Economics, 41 percent of non-millennial and 29 percent of millennial employees expect more feedback than they currently receive.

In addition, 94 percent of organizations surveyed by SHRM and Globoforce in 2013 believe positive feedback improved employee performance and 90 percent felt feedback from a direct supervisor and from others within the organization is more accurate than feedback from a supervisor alone.

Middle managers need feedback from executive leaders and from the employees they lead. Providing feedback and recognizing hard work will help to boost their engagement and leadership skills, and in turn will boost the performance of the employees they lead.

4. Be a better role model.  

Middle managers mimic the behavior of their leaders, and they need stronger role models to show them how it’s done. Molding better middle managers ultimately comes down to being a better senior manager.

Senior executives need to take a hard look at their leadership strategies and evaluate what bad behaviors their middle managers may be picking up. Don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk by making an effort to be a better leader and model the strategies middle managers should use within the organization.

I conclude with, "Death to the middle manager as administrator - long live the manager as a leader!"

Next Week: The changing definition of management