The renaissance of the middle manager – what difference does a good middle manager make in a company?

Historically derided as specialists in administrative activities whose sole function seems to be the preparation of myriad reports and presentations as well as conducting countless meetings. This perception is changing and nowadays they are increasingly seen as playing a key role in the performance of the organisation. The reason for this is simple; they are the management group that are closest to the teams. Because of this they are in an ideal position to translate leaders’ idea-vision into actual activities. They are accountable for influencing and motivating employees who work at the coal face, so to speak.

Often it is for them that lower-level employees stay in the organisation, even in the face of professional burnout or a difficult market situation. But it is also because of them that some workers leave.

Let us cast a sympathetic eye on those who, according to Prof. K. Oblój, play a “dramatic” role in the organisation. After all, it is this layer of middle managers who try to marry the needs of the teams with the requirements of management. According to McKinsey & Co, middle managers now create a distinctive competitive advantage for the best organisations and play a key role in the direction of future work.

The art of moving to the “next level”.

A common practice in organisations is the promotion of experts or specialists to middle management positions. However this can be counter-productive if directing work and managing people is not in their field of interests. Specialists, by their nature, often lack wider managerial skills. Promoting such star performers away from their teams can actually undermine the performance of the department or area. This is simply because specialists and experts can be burdened with additional responsibilities that they are neither equipped to handle nor interested in. It follows that their motivation and performance will likely suffer as a result.

So, what are the main reasons why professionals choose to move into management positions? To a large extent, remuneration is the motivating factor. Managerial positions tend to be better paid and usually come with additional benefits. Experts may have a limited path for advancement and development within the organisation. After all, as supervisors may ask…”how do I develop someone who has greater and more specialist knowledge than I do?”

For organisations, promoting experts to middle management is recognised as potentially problematic. Especially in light of recognised issues such as professional burnout. More recently, social trends have taken root in many workplaces in response to burnout. These include the “great resignation” or the recent fad towards “quiet quitting”. It is also reflected in a high senior-level turnover, never good news for the stability of the organisation.

Despite these recognised problems, managers still fall into the trap of optimism and assume that great specialists will make great teachers, who will effectively both manage the team and develop their staff. Alas, management competence and specialist competence are two very different disciplines.

Development of the organisation through employee development.

One solution is to develop a conscious strategy for the development of middle management. This starts with identifying the goals of the individual employees on both a vertical and lateral path. The next step is to align these goals closely with those of the organisation. The natural third step is to then start equipping these professionals with management competencies.

To arm newly-promoted managers with broad management skills requires a training process of several months. During this time, participants  acquire skills and tools with which to motivate and inspire others, build accountability and make team decisions. They also focus on conflict resolution and reducing turnover. Managers are trained to ask pertinent and searching questions that open up opportunities for improvement for their staff.

Communication rank

Middle managers also perform best when they have the power to direct and influence. The best managers are those who respond sensibly and flexibly to the realities of the people they manage. They also invariably possess excelled communication skills.

One of the key communication skills in management is giving effective feedback. The process of giving feedback is, first and foremost a dialogue. Once feedback has been given, the recipient should have clear instructions on what to change as well as guidance on how to achieve the change. Crucially they must also be empowered to make those changes.

It is essential that managers are trained to give feedback in a way that develops staff rather than closing off opportunities. The focus should always be on active dialogue, where staff can respond and discuss feedback with their managers. They also need to be given the opportunity to implement the required changes.

This should be done within an iterative framework of giving feedback, taking required actions and reviewing the outcomes. If this isn’t followed through and repeated, staff simply can’t develop.

The difference between average and outstanding managers

A CFO once asked their CEO the question…

      “What if we train people and they leave?”

To which the CEO replied…

      “What if we don’t train them and they stay?”

Well trained and prepared managers definitely work faster and more effectively because they are able to build unity within their teams from the bottom up. They are adept at reducing conflicts and they inspire others to act.

The advantages of outstanding managers are a high level of emotional maturity and assertive attitudes. They are effective at guiding their teams work within the edicts of the organisation’s culture.

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