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The Success Of Middle Managers Starts With Senior Leaders

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Too many organizations equate middle management with bloated bureaucracy. But the blame for saddling managers with bureaucratic tasks rests squarely with senior leaders—and it’s up to them to fix it.

Most senior leaders—even those who believe they are good at delegating—fail to empower the people below them to do the work that they are uniquely suited to do. And their middle managers in particular have suffered the consequences.

The CEO’s views and attitudes can’t help but replicate and reverberate throughout the organization; ultimately, that can rob middle managers, who would also like time to think and plan, of the opportunity to exercise their own good judgment.

I Don’t Trust You

What is behind this way of operating? Basically, it comes down to a lack of trust. This is something we heard from a host of middle managers when we interviewed them individually.

These are some of the messages that middle managers are getting from their senior leaders:

• I don’t trust you to make good business decisions, so I need you to synthesize the work below you and then present it to a person above you.

• I don’t trust you to be able to find a way of getting more out of your people, so I want you to do some “real work” on the side.

• I don’t trust you to make good travel decisions, so I need you to submit a travel form for approval.

Too many senior leaders are burdening managers with administrative duties that can be eliminated, automated or assigned to other people. In effect, executives are prioritizing bureaucracy over trust.

Middle managers want authority, autonomy and discretion. They want to provide input on strategy. They don’t want to fill out forms. Yet filling out forms, following rules, and checking boxes has become a big part of their job. Not only that, when something goes wrong—as it often does—they are the ones blamed for following the rules that someone else created. On top of that, executives often expect their managers to perform individual contributor roles, too.

Some leaders have tried to put a positive spin on this practice by advocating a player-coach model of management. It sounds nice in theory: in a seamless progression, managers can both do the work at which they excel, and coach others to reach the same level. The problem is that both sides of the role become overloaded. And often, managers are not trained to be effective coaches, so they naturally gravitate toward the player or individual contributor role at the expense of the coach role. And when a manager is balancing two jobs instead of doing one, and they are poorly trained on top of that, guess what effect that has on their leadership abilities?

It is no wonder, then, that middle managers have such a bad reputation. And it is no wonder that this layer has often been seen—including by consultants at McKinsey—as the simplest, least damaging, and most financially beneficial place to cut costs.

The problem, though, is not the job—it’s what the job has become. Too many organizations equate middle management with bloated bureaucracy. But that’s not the middle managers’ fault. The blame for saddling managers with bureaucratic tasks rests squarely with senior leaders. And it’s up to them to do something about it.

The answer is not to cut from the middle ranks. The answer is to transform the way the middle is perceived and (literally) how the middle works. This starts from the top, with executives loosening their grip on power and transferring more of it to the middle.

The first thing that needs to happen is a mindset shift. It’s time that more senior leaders recognize that people are an organization’s most important asset. And therefore the employees who recruit, hire, train, develop, and retain people—the middle managers—are the most important asset of all.

Too many executives are undercutting the value of their managers, and they’re losing money in the process because too many employees are not being developed to their full potential. We have come across large organizations—with tens of thousands of employees and billions in revenue—that have seemingly forgotten to take care of and develop their middle managers. It’s no wonder that managers don’t know how to manage—they are essentially expected to learn via osmosis. This became especially acute during the pandemic, when the weight of supporting widely dispersed teams of individual contributors fell on managers, but often these same managers were not given any guidance on how to do it.

There is a satisfying parallel between how we are urging senior leaders to lead their managers and how we want the managers themselves to lead their own reports. New best practices will start from the top and flow throughout the organization. So, how can senior leaders get to a place where their middle managers are front and center? First, they need to answer two main questions:

What do we want our middle managers to be doing? The answer could be some form of: We want them to serve as coaches, connectors, and navigators for the people who report to them, along with people throughout the organization.

• What are they doing right now? Chances are the answer is: Not very much of the above at all.

Our survey of middle managers showed that many feel they are spending time on low-value tasks like administration and individual contributor work, and not as much time on high-value work like coaching and developing their reports. Senior leaders can make progress by becoming fully aware of the details behind this disconnect.

Then comes the hard part: making the changes that put middle managers first, and—at least for a while—prioritizing that effort above all else. A big part of this will involve thoughtfully deciding which tasks should and should not be part of the manager’s role.

Even when they know they need to shake up their middle-management ranks, many senior leaders hate to hear this. Why? Mainly because of inertia and expediency. Here are some excuses: We’ve always done it this way. Change is hard. Rebundling and reassigning tasks takes time. Some projects may need to be delayed.

And when a manager is also good at a particular frontline job, it seems like a two-fer to have them do it one or two days a week. Who is going to do the extra work if those tasks are taken off their plate?

Time to Reassess Roles

There’s another hard thing that senior leaders will need to face: Some of the people who are currently middle managers will need to be removed from those roles. That’s because they never should have been hired or promoted to these positions in the first place. It’s another practice from above that helped give the term “middle manager” a bad name.

Some managers settle into an organizational “permafrost,” where they zealously guard the status quo and are quick to come up with reasons why every new idea is bad. Then there’s the tendency for cowardly managers to move underperforming employees to another department; in some cases this involves a promotion to an open middle-management spot where the employee has an opportunity to perform poorly in a brand-new way, this time bringing down their direct reports with them.

Obviously, in an organization that decides to put middle managers first, employees like these cannot stay where they are, so they will need to be redeployed. It should be fairly easy to find a new spot for individual contributors who were mistakenly moved to management, and to put them on a promotional career track within their area of expertise.

It’s possible that some underperforming managers can be trained to be effective, or matched with a team that is a better fit. As for the rest, they will probably need to be thoughtfully transitioned out of the role. Eventually, people who are not suited to become middle managers become an organizational hazard.

At this point, though, senior leaders can’t let this opportunity to permanently reduce headcount tempt them. They must hire and promote for the now-open positions, and do so wisely. They can begin by identifying the most critical managerial roles in the organization—in other words, the ones that will generate the most profit and revenue in the future, and also the ones that will involve the highest risk (such as industries with major safety and data breach concerns). Then they can commit to putting the best managers in those critical roles. All middle managers matter, but put in this context, some matter more than others.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from POWER TO THE MIDDLE: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work by Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field. Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.


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