“Middle Managers are only as good as the bad staff they manage” said one grumpy line manager I once met. I recently visited an organisation where the General Manager was concerned that the middle section of his organisation as he referred to it, was not working well. He was happy that his strategic managers were well focused but he seemed to be having a problem with those managers responsible for delivering at operational level. He knew that these managers were technically skilled and reasonably motivated because he had been involved in their recruitment. But things just weren’t translating into productive outcomes through the teams that they were leading.
I arranged to speak with a few of these managers and very quickly it became clear that their relationships with the teams under their direction were not very constructive. Two out of the five Middle Managers began our conversation with statements to the effect that “Well, it’s what I have to work with. These people are poorly skilled and inexperienced, and they don’t seem to be motivated to do a quality job.”
Immediately alarm bells rang with me and the first question in my head was “Well, as the manager what are you doing about that?”
Middle Managers and their operational teams are totally dependent on one another when it comes to creating the environment for productive outcomes. Without leadership by the manager the team will never be motivated and without the manager’s guidance, mentoring and sharing of their knowledge and experience, the team will never grow its capability. Conversely without the support and commitment of the team, the manager cannot produce the results required of them.
Priorities of a Middle Manager
In order to place themselves in the correct frame to deal with the wide range of issues that they will face at any time, Middle Managers need to set a few key actions as their priorities:
Getting to know the team both as individuals and as a group – spending time finding out just what sort of people make up the team and what makes them tick in terms of attitude to both work and private life can provide important insights into how to communicate with and motivate people in a team environment. Understanding the dynamics within the team will help identify who influences opinion within the group.
Skills and aptitude assessment -understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the team in terms of technical or vocational skills and indeed the aptitudes that have not yet been fulfilled can provide strong direction for the development of individuals as both “doers” and leaders.
Communicating vision and objectives – merely issuing instructions for activities and tasks is not enough to earn the respect and loyalty of the team. Being able to engage the team in the underlying purpose for their activities by being able to communicate to them a higher purpose for their work and the contribution being made to the organisation’s success is much more beneficial.
How can Middle Managers help their teams?
It is also important to recognise that the team looks to the manager for support, protection, mentoring, guidance, encouragement and mediation where necessary. It is the duty of the manager therefore to offer that support and assistance in a host of ways.
- Safety and well-being – ensuring that the workplace is safe and healthy and that the team and any of its individuals are not put in danger physically or subjected to emotional distress should be a primary concern of the Middle Manager. Elimination of any environment that might have previously permitted bullying and harassment is often a good starting point.
- Team spirit – engendering a healthy spirit of comradeship within the team to foster cooperation and a willingness to go that extra mile for one’s fellow team members is a core objective. Being there shoulder to shoulder with them when the going gets tough is an essential leadership quality for Middle Managers.
- Acting as Mediator – acknowledging that workplaces are not free from inter-personal tensions, the Middle Manager has a vital role to play in resolving disputes that might arise between team members and in repairing the falling out of relationships that invariably occur during the working year. Dealing with these issues with integrity, fairness and equity is the Middle Manager’s responsibility.
- Decisive leadership – providing strong leadership in day-to-day activities so that the team never suffers confusion as to what is required and so that any debate as to appropriate direction is quickly resolved by the firm vision of the manager.
- Consistency in decision-making – always provide clarity as to expectations of performance and outcomes to avoid uncertainty and adhere to consistent principles when resolving conflict.
- Advocating up the line – advocating for the team and its individuals with senior management in relation to matters of concern likely to impact on the team’s ability to deliver to expectations. Ensure that resources appropriate to the expected level of outcomes are provided.
- Performance management – Regularly give feedback on performance and a goal attainment, celebrating achievements and extending praise when opportunity arises. Maintaining discipline with equity and fairness.
How can teams help their Middle Managers?
Convincing the operational team that they also have a role to play in supporting the Middle Manager may sometimes be difficult but once achieved there is much to be gained. To this end the manager should be encouraging their team to adopt some simple behaviours and habits to ensure that reciprocity of trust, loyalty and support exists between the team as manager.
- No surprises – if the team can be engendered to ensure that no circumstances likely to impact negatively on the outcomes expected of the team and the manager are allowed to arise without prior warning to the manager, strategies can be developed to avoid or minimise any adverse effects. This is obviously to the benefit of both the team and manager.
- Conscientious daily effort – the very least a manager should expect of this team, regardless of the limitations on their skills or experience, is that each member of the team should be committed to turning up every day with a positive attitude and a determination to conscientiously carry out their tasks. By developing a relationship with the team that ensures individuals will see their daily attendance and attention to duty as their obligation to the manager as well as to the team, the foundation is established for the manager to concentrate on their value added role rather than being bogged down in personnel issues.
- Taking responsibility for quality – where teams hold each other accountable for ensuring they contribute positively to the team effort of achieving the expected standard.
- Self-managed team cohesion – encouraging team members themselves to maintain respectful and trusting relationships amongst the team members to avoid the need for the Middle Manager to negotiate or mediate between them.
The effort exerted by Middle Managers in creating productive and high performing teams has its own reward. I have seen Middle Managers enjoying their work and life far more when they have teams capable and willing to pursue the organisation’s objectives and deliver outcomes with minimal amount of unnecessary intervention by the manager. On the other hand, I have seen Middle Managers handling their teams in a way that has created their own Frankenstein’s monster which inevitably turned against them and what they are trying to achieve.
Typically the behaviors of Middle managers who produce this effect include:
- Heavy handed autocracy
- Showing favouritism to certain members of the team
- Demeaning language
- Lack of discipline
- Lack of direction
Middle Managers and succession planning
Individuals can sometimes find themselves thrust into the greatness of Middle Management from within the ranks of the operational team, sometimes with little warning or time for preparation. Such instances underlined the importance of Middle Managers developing leaders within their team to take over their role and provide seamless transition when the need arises. Deliberate succession planning for Middle Managers is not common in many organisations, but its importance is highly undervalued.
Sudden promotion of technically competent operational staff into the front line management role can often create challenges for the individual in the early stages. It is the point when support from both senior management and from the team itself is so important to the evolution of the new leader.
I recently encountered a useful article on dealing with this particular circumstance which readers might find useful.
Being in the middle is a good place for managers to be when they enjoy strong support, encouragement and loyalty of both their senior managers and operational teams. When that Is not happening it really is Frankenstein time.