Gone are the days when middle managers were considered dispensable. COVID-19 has shown how critical they are in helping a business navigate change.
When a business faces tough times, executive-level conversation inevitably turns to reinventing the organisational chart. Those at the top of the hierarchy are, by and large, considered indispensable; and there’s rarely much fat to trim at the bottom, where products are manufactured and services are delivered.
So that leaves middle managers. Are they really necessary?
Many consultants argue that middle management’s supervisory responsibilities would be better handled by veteran staff ‘on the ground floor’, while their other duties – such as analysing team performance – could be outsourced.
“When consultants come in to lower costs, inevitably the first thing they try is to ‘de-layer’ the organisation,” says Pitosh Heyden, Associate Professor at Monash Business School.
“That means removing the middle layers.”
MBA and executive development programs often espouse this approach, says Zahira Jaser, an Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex Business School in the UK.
“The idea that middle managers are inefficient – that middle management causes bottlenecks – is widespread,” she says.
What’s more, many of these programs teach old models of leadership in which influence flows only from the top down, framing middle managers as mere administrators.
Jaser believes this view is misguided, particularly as we move towards a post-COVID work environment.
“Middle managers are indispensable,” she says. “Today, they are often the part of the organisation that is under the greatest stress, and they are the people who engage in some of the most important critical thinking.”
In a fast-changing world, where organisations must adapt quickly, middle managers have a key role to play, says Jaser.
“I don’t see middle managers just as administrators, or even just as leaders. I see them as connectors, which is an entirely different way of looking at them.” – Zahira Jaser, Assistant Professor, University of Sussex Business School
“They need to create pictures of possible futures, which is a skill we would typically attribute to leaders at the very top.”
Heyden agrees, saying, “We know now that de-layering doesn’t work, because you lose so much tacit knowledge about the organisation.”
Middle managers, they say, can be an organisation’s most effective communicators and change-makers if they are well-resourced – and, crucially, respected.
“They need to be empowered,” says Jaser. “Their job needs to be facilitated. Their stress needs to be recognised. Their critical-thinking abilities need to be praised. And I don’t think we are doing any of this enough right now.”
Creating a new paradigm
In order to appreciate the middle managers’ role in an organisation, we need to depart from old ways of thinking, says Jaser.
In the 1970s, Abraham Zaleznik, from Harvard Business School, wrote an influential article that defined leaders as ‘visionaries’ and managers as ‘strategic administrators’. The value judgment he was making was clear.
At the time, his thinking aligned with reality. “We had very large organisations with very strong hierarchies where the decisions were taken at the top,” says Jaser.
“Middle managers, therefore, were only there to facilitate the implementation of strategy that was decided at the executive level.”
But the world has moved on since the 1970s. Contemporary life is less certain, and organisations must regularly contend with paradigm-shifting change, from the internet revolution to the Global Financial Crisis and COVID-19.
“Organisations need to continuously problem-solve to come up with creative solutions to challenges that simply didn’t exist before,” says Jaser. It’s in this context that the role of middle management comes to the fore.
“The speed of change and the need for organisations to adapt at short notice is such that middle managers need to be empowered to think independently,” says Jaser.
She proposes a new way of viewing middle management that takes into account both its traditional function and the realities of the present day.
“I don’t see middle managers just as administrators, or even just as leaders. I see them as connectors, which is an entirely different way of looking at them.”
Middle managers can have unique functions as translators and facilitators, she believes.
“A lot of change now needs to happen from the bottom up. People on the ground are often in touch with the real problems, and therefore they can provide the real solutions.”
These solutions need to be analysed, synthesised and succinctly communicated up to the organisation’s top tier.
“The way this can happen most efficiently and effectively is through middle managers.”
“We know now that the companies that successfully pivot during crises are the ones that give middle managers the time to come up with ideas for change, and the leeway to implement those ideas.” – Pitosh Heyden, Associate Professor, Monash Business School
It’s an approach that Katie Ashton-Taylor, Head of People at Bupa Health Services, says has served her organisation well.
“Our middle managers really help to inform and influence the strategic priorities we focus on and the operational changes we make,” says Ashton-Taylor.
When Bupa’s executive team has decided how to proceed on a specific initiative, it is middle management’s job to convey that information back to teams on the ground.
But the company doesn’t view them simply as messengers, says Ashton-Taylor. “Their critical role is to take that information and translate it so it’s relevant for, and makes sense to, the teams they support.”
The efficiency myth
Rather than functioning as bottlenecks, Bupa’s middle managers speed up the vertical flow of information in both directions, making the business more efficient, says Ashton-Taylor.
Researchers argue that middle managers can improve efficiency in other ways, too.
In 2017, academics reviewed a range of research into the structure of healthcare organisations and concluded that middle management was best placed to incite radical change in healthcare settings.
The authors said organisations must encourage their middle managers to engage in “ambidextrous learning” – that is, learning about what is happening both above and below them – and then allow them to spearhead the change initiatives.
Heyden says there’s other research which supports this recommendation.
“We know now that the companies that successfully pivot during crises are the ones that give middle managers the time to come up with ideas for change, and the leeway to implement those ideas,” he says.
Ralf Wilden, Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Macquarie University, points out that organisational change often takes place in collaboration with outside partners.
He believes middle managers should be in charge of this process.
“We know that modern organisations have to increase their focus on outside stakeholders,” he says. “And we know that you need to have a coordinated approach when dealing with multiple external partners. Why would you not give middle managers the power to lead that?
“It’s difficult to give that power to every single marketing manager in your organisation, but you still need someone who takes charge and coordinates those activities.
“It’s not going to be the COO. It needs to be someone in the middle.”
Jaser agrees. Giving middle managers more autonomy and responsibility improves efficiency at the executive level, she says.
“By taking on some organisational responsibilities, middle managers give the people above them the breathing room to do strategic and creative thinking, because they know the middle managers are taking care of business.”
Designing a middle manager superhero
Many middle managers already bear many of these responsibilities, says Heyden, even if they’re not recognised for doing so.
“We know from studies that middle managers have the highest stress levels in organisations, and that’s because they have to cope with executive thinking, operational thinking and cross-functional thinking,” he says.
The pandemic has made this clear. Heyden points to a recent study of 9000 knowledge workers that found middle managers were 9 per cent more likely to say they had trouble working remotely during the pandemic than those above and below them in the hierarchy.
“And so you have to equip them not only with cognitive skills, but also with emotional and social skills so they can cope with the demands.”
Heyden outlines five high-level skills that today’s middle managers should possess:
- Emotional balancing: “Regulating enthusiasm and caution in radical change.”
- Empathetic concern: “Caring for others.”
- Psychological safety: “Creating a trusting environment to facilitate the ‘failure-based learning’ that’s crucial for change.”
- Role switching: “Wearing different hats.”
- Perspective taking: “Particularly useful for negotiations with multiple stakeholders. Where role switching is more about managing ongoing processes, perspective taking is useful for navigating bottlenecks and reaching resolutions that may impede continuation.”
We also need to collectively review how we train and recruit middle managers, says Jaser.
“What we usually do is teach middle managers about leadership. We have a very big toolkit for teaching them about the types of leadership. But leadership is not enough.”
Today’s middle managers must also be trained to influence upwards, she says, which is a concept known as followership.
“Influencing from a lower-power position is much more difficult than influencing from the top down, yet we don’t teach this. They also need to be able to mediate, think critically, negotiate and nurture relationships at the top and the bottom,” says Jaser.
Many middle managers haven’t been trained in these areas. “They’re promoted because they’re good at their jobs. In a bank, it’s the person who makes the most money. In a startup, it’s the person who creates the best software, and so forth.”
But the ideal middle manager is one who understands both what happens below and what happens above.
Heyden believes it’s in our best interest to reframe the role of the middle manager.
“We need to make the middle management role one that’s attractive to our most talented people,” he says. “Because we know that when middle managers thrive, companies thrive.”
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