Middle managers – why the label?

This week I was facilitating a workshop on middle managers’ roles in orchestrating organisational change.  A role which ‘entails directing (and redirecting) resources according to a [strategy] policy or plan of action, and possibly also reshaping organizational structures and systems’.

We were discussing what skills middle managers need and what factors inhibited or facilitated their role in what Heyden et al see as the two aspects of change:

Change initiation which ‘entails the ‘spark’ for change through activities such as identifying, articulating, and outlining an opportunity for change, formulating the initial business case, emphasizing its urgency, and securing key budgetary and resource commitments.’

Change execution which ‘is about realizing change plans through activities such as day-to-day adjustments, rolling out initiatives, aligning activities with stated objectives, translating overarching goals into periodic milestones, and giving sense and direction to change recipients.’

Kiehne et al take the view that middle managers face both ways in initiating and executing change and are ‘key players for making strategy work. They are both a source of knowledge for senior management to develop and formulate a strategy as well as a vital element in selling high level strategic plans to lower levels in the organization and even translating it and putting it into context so that working level employees can make sense of high level strategic directions’.

This viewpoint highlights the role of middle managers as arbiters and interpreters between two layers of a hierarchy, seeing ‘the vision at the top of the organisation and the pain at the bottom.’  Scott Adams, offers an alternative image of this, describing middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’.

Whether they are interpreters, arbiters or glue, the role puts them in an uneasy position, rendering them, according to another researcher, ‘vulnerable and insecure’, having a ‘current identity of being a talented, technical professional dumped into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.’

Building on this bleak picture, Boston Consulting Group says ‘Middle managers frequently … do not have the support of senior managers or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees’, and the CIPDs’, 2018 UK Working Lives Survey finds that, ‘At a broad level, poor well-being at work is most often experienced by middle managers, which may be a sign of the dual pressures of working with organisational strategy and day-to-day deliverables.’   The actual figures presented for middle managers are:

31% reported feeling overloaded

27% believe their work negatively affects their mental health

26% suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year

24% said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure

The discussion on these figures took an interesting turn.   Rather than seeing them as confirmation of the bleak picture of a squeezed and stressed managerial level, several in the group thought that the figures were actually rather good.  They felt that if things were as dispiriting as the various researchers’ findings, the figures would be much higher.   They began to contest the research – granting that the middle manager role is challenging but, in their experience, not more than managerial roles at lower or higher levels. The label of a middle management group that merited special attention slipped as someone pointed out that every level of manager faces both upwards and downwards.

With this backdrop, we turned to the list of roles middle managers typically play in the change process.  As interface between bottom and top levels they:

  • Communicate and transmit information from the bottom to the top level,
  • Exercise the role of defender (championing alternatives, guiding and promoting, defending, presenting alternatives to top management);
  • Take on the role of synthesizer (categorizing ideas, selling these ideas to top management, combining and applying the information, synthesising it);

And as interface from the top to bottom level they:

  • Act as facilitator (protecting and promoting adaptation activities, sharing information, guiding the adaptation, facilitating learning and adaptability);
  • Become an implementer (implementing deliberate strategy, reviewing and adjusting, motivating and inspiring as a coach).

Participants pointed out that all those roles are also played in the ‘day job’ – they are not specific to initiating or executing change.

So now we had the ideas that middle managers may or may not be unduly stressed, and the roles they play in their work are not specific to planned change work.   With these ideas we looked at Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis’s 4 quadrant model of middle managers’ roles in culture change.

The model proposes four types of managerial role in culture change.  Someone’s position on the matrix depending on the organisation culture and amount of control managers feel they can exert on the change:

Quadrant 1: Yes managers:  happy to go along with anything proposed by top managers and enjoy the ride.  ‘These middle managers are happy to fulfil requests from senior leaders. They regard themselves as lucky as, after all, their circumstances are beyond their capacity to influence.’

Quadrant 2: Effective change agents:  ‘working effectively both with senior leaders and with staff as positive change agents – sometimes initiated by senior leaders, sometimes initiated by staff and other times initiated by themselves.’

Quadrant 3: Change resistors: ‘In these circumstances, the middle manager aligns with staff (who are often negative) and typically they are at odds with senior leaders – sometimes explicitly, other times in a more subversive way.’

Quadrant 4: Embattled change agents: ‘This is a tough context as middle managers are often buffeted by senior leaders whose actions thwart their attempts to improve the work environment. In their belief that they can and do influence the culture, middle managers attempt to stay in touch with the issues as perceived by staff while struggling to do anything about them.’

I was proposing that middle managers should be aiming to be in quadrant 2 where they are able to influence the change in a supportive culture.   If they’re not headed in that direction Simpson and du Plessis say ‘we think there is value is digging a little deeper into the issue. For example, are middle managers feeling as though they are in Quadrant 4 where their attempts at change are being constrained by a negative culture without support from senior leaders? Or do middle managers have a victim mentality where everything is the fault of others?’

My proposal was challenged by participants – some arguing that being in quadrant 3 – the change resistors – was organisationally useful.  They felt that middle managers in this quadrant could be signalling that the change strategy was at odds with the reality of capacity to deliver it and keep the business running at the same time.  People supporting this view added that the managers in this quadrant could, legitimately, be protecting their staff from extra work pressures.

Similarly, other participants felt that quadrant 1, being the yes manager was a good place to be.  They felt it made life easier for the manager – assuming manager capability to engage employees in supporting the change – as the manager could more simply plan the change into the work without having to think too much about it, these participants felt it was a more stable environment for employees.

Participants agreed that quadrant 4 was a difficult place to be. Many of them had been in it and described it as ‘banging head against brick wall’ – resulting in them moving to either quadrant 3 (resistor) or quadrant 1 (yes manager).   They didn’t see this as failure but rather a pragmatic reassessment of where to put their energy.

Then somebody made the point that this role of change agent was not specific to middle management but part of every manager and leader role.

At this point I saw the middle manager label slip completely. They are neither unique in facing up and down, nor in being stressed in their work, nor in taking a role of change agent.

Do you think ‘middle managers’ need their own label?  Let me know.

Image: The god janus