The middle manager role is one companies often talk about, but they identify and develop them using the same old methods. Today’s technology-centric workers will require more engaged management to wade through the complexities of driving both performance and well-being.
POWER TO THE MIDDLE: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work by Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field serves as a wake-up call for companies, providing tactical tips for this critical role. We can turn to the below book excerpt to start, how do we identify who are most influential managers are and what power can they wield?
Most companies do a good job of putting a value on individual contributor roles. But provided that they are skilled, trained, and empowered, middle managers have a reach that represents much more value than that of any single person below them.
Identifying these high-value positions can be done through a survey with one single question: “Who do you turn to when you want to find out what’s going on around here?” Inevitably, the same names will turn up on many of the surveys.
Not all high-value managers are influencers. And not all influencers hold high-value roles. The key is to home in on what we call “the critical few,” who are both high-value and influential. Senior leaders will want to bring these managers into the tent with them to make the most important strategic decisions.
There are three categories of management influencers to consider:
Microphones and megaphones: These are influencers who do not hold high-value roles. They may not be among the critical few, but when these people talk, other employees listen. They play a vital role that senior leaders can nurture by deliberately feeding them information that will find its way into conversations, both small (microphones) and large (megaphones). By striving to keep influencers informed and inspired and then letting them loose as communicators and translators, executives can help pump energy and excitement throughout the organization.
Value at risk: These managers are in high-value roles but have little influence. Though smart and innovative, they may not be connected enough to come up with good ideas in the first place. Or, if they do have good ideas, they lack the reach that could bring them to fruition. Leaders need to push these high-value managers into the networks that enable them to generate ideas and execute plans.
Waiting to be shaped and deployed: The remaining group of managers, though not in the top tier in terms of value or influence, can still make a difference if leaders are thoughtful about their skills and attributes. Placing them on high-value projects or proactively connecting them with influencers could be just the motivation they need to shine.
Once managers are hired, promoted, or transferred, the next step is for senior leaders to lavish time and money on training them to be the most effective people-leaders they can be. This can include classroom training and hands-on individual coaching, and it can follow a leadership development model that clearly articulates the organization’s goals.
Executives can also change the way they evaluate their middle managers. Reward middle managers not just based on the revenue and profit that their departments produce; also reward them based on team performance, along with team health as measured by factors like attrition and engagement.
The best managers are talent magnets (people want to work for them) and talent multipliers (help people shine brighter and achieve more than they ever thought possible). Senior leaders also need to be crystal clear about the outcomes and the behavior they want to see from their managers. Behaviors can include providing a supportive, uplifting, and inspiring environment. And also: not being a jerk.
We have come across managers who achieve great outcomes but are condescending bullies to their reports, while other managers are really fun and nice people but fail to achieve the desired results. Both outcomes and behavior need to be clarified and evaluated for a manager to be truly successful.
To transform their middle management ranks, senior leaders can also:
- Signal to employees that these are the most desirable positions in the organization. The message should be clear: This job is a destination, not a way station.
- Break up organizational silos by encouraging middle managers to meet regularly and share best practices.
- Sustain or create a culture of psychological safety where middle managers are not afraid to speak truth to power. In their unique position close to the ground, but not too close, they can be the first to detect serious systemic problems and suggest ways to solve them.
- Show compassion for their managers, just as we have urged managers to show compassion for their own reports.
Remember, managers have some of the hardest jobs out there. Research shows they are the most depressed and stressed workers because they’re in charge of outcomes they didn’t necessarily plan or might not even agree with.
Before getting down to business, ask them how they are, not as a formality but because you really want to know—on a personal and professional level. Hopefully, with a shift in mindset, some of the causes of that stress will ease.
Recognize that middle managers cannot be truly effective unless you give them autonomy and flexibility. By removing the tasks that weigh them down and empowering them to make their own decisions, you elevate their work and allow them to elevate the work of those who report to them.
A mindset of “learned helplessness” among managers seems to permeate many organizations, said the chief human resource officer at a large bank whom we interviewed. Her company employs more than one thousand bank managers, and there are significant differences between the best bank managers and all the others, she says. The top managers have a sense of ownership of their branch. The best managers are also entrepreneurial, and the bank has encouraged them to think that way. In turn, “They create a sense of ownership among their employees to set higher goals and to see what’s possible,” she said. “The pride they feel as a collective team when they accomplish something is unbelievable.”
Too many managers feel they’re just a cog in the wheel and don’t really matter. As a result, they underestimate the way they could transform their teams. Managers don’t realize that their sense of helplessness and cynicism is a form of negative energy that has a big impact.
It’s clear that whether it’s positive or negative, middle managers have enormous influence—and that it can be used to either accelerate strategy and cultural change or stop it in its tracks.
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.