The Invisible Middle

Saturday 31 August, 2019
by Cris Parker
Exploring middle management at The BFO conference in 2016 was impossible, 2019 was not a lot easier. Whether they're considered the curator or custodian of culture, middle managers are pivotal to putting cultural change into action.

Why then are they often left out of the conversation?

The empty chair on stage was more than symbolic when The Banking and Finance Oath (BFO) was hosting a panel discussion on who holds the responsibility of culture within an organisation. In months of preparation, I had not found one middle manager who was willing or able to contribute to the discussion.
A chairman, director, CEO, HR specialist and a professor settled into their places, ready to give their opinions on the role they played in developing culture. The empty space at this event, three years ago, spoke volumes about the invisibility and voicelessness of those who have been promoted to manage others, but have little actual decision-making power.

Middle managers are often caught in the crossfire when it comes to apportioning blame for the failure to transform an organisation’s culture or to enact strategy. I have heard them derisively called “permafrost”, as if they are frozen into position and will only move with the application of a blowtorch.

“Culture Blockers” is another well-used epithet.

Middle managers are typically those people who head departments, business units, or who are project managers. It is their responsibility to implement the strategy that is imposed from above them and may have two management levels below them.

Over the past 20 years, the ranks of the middle managers have been slashed as organisations cut out unnecessary costs and aim towards flatter hierarchies. Those occupying the surviving positions may be characterised like this:

* They are often managing people for the first time and offered little training to deal with professional development, project management, time management and conflict resolution
* They may have been promoted because of their technical competence, rather than management ability
* Their management responsibilities may be added on top of what they were already doing before being promoted
* They have responsibility, but little formal authority
* They may have limited budget
* They are charged with enacting policy and embeding values, but may not be given the context or the “why”
* They have little autonomy or flexibility and may lack a sense of purpose.

All these characteristics make middle management highly stressful. Two large US studies found that people who work at this level are more likely to suffer depression (18 per cent of supervisors and managers) and had the lowest levels of job satisfaction.

“I don’t know any middle manager that feels like they’re doing a good job”, a middle manager recently told me.

However, the reason we need to pay attention to our middle managers is more than just concern for their welfare. Strategies and cultural change will fail if they are not supported and motivated.

“We know what good looks like, but we’re not set up for success”, confided another middle manager.

Stanford University professor, Behnam Tabrizi, studied large-scale change and innovation efforts in 56 randomly selected companies and found that the 32 per cent that succeeded in their efforts could thank the involvement of their middle managers.

“In those cases, mid-level managers weren’t merely managing incremental change; they were leading it by working levers of power up, across and down in their organisations,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

As more evidence that middle managers are intrinsic to a business’ success, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brindecided they could do without managers in the early days of the company in 2002. However, their experiment with a manager-less organisation only lasted a few months.

“They relented when too many people went directly to Page with questions about expense reports, interpersonal conflicts, and other nitty-gritty issues. And as the company grew, the founders soon realized that managers contributed in many other, important ways—for instance, by communicating strategy, helping employees prioritise projects, facilitating collaboration, supporting career development, and ensuring that processes and systems aligned with company goals,” wrote David Garvin, the C. Roland Christensen Professor at Harvard Business School.

With all of this in mind, you may think business leaders would now be seeking the views of their middle managers, to engage them in the cultural change required to regain public trust after the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry and other recent scandals. But sadly, no.

Just this month at The BFO conference, I was again presenting a panel discussion on the plight of middle managers. Prior to the day, two of the middle management panelists – despite one being nominated by a senior leader – were pulled and additionally the discussion was ruled Chatham House, with journalists being asked to leave the room. Although I saw a glimpse of positivity, my research leading up to the discussion would suggest very little has changed and this issue is not limited to financial services.

While senior leaders are working tirelessly to overcome challenges in this transitional time, part of the answer is right in front of them (well, below them) – their hard-working middle managers. But first, they have to make the effort to engage them with appreciation, seek their views with empathy, and involve them in the formulation of strategy.

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