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Why leaders need to empower middle managers

Middle managers are the unsung heroes of the workplace – and here’s how you can help them to succeed.

Empowering middle managers

Middle managers do it tough. They are neither executive nor worker and belong neither ‘in the tent’ nor ‘in the trenches’. This fundamental identity crisis has led to a litany of failures that have been called out since the 1950s.

Poor communication and decision making, failure to motivate or collaborate and a tendency to micro-manage and bureaucratize are all common ‘middle manager’ themes in research, memes and tropes. It’s little wonder that 62 percent of CEOs rate their mid-level leaders as average or worse.

But the narrative around middle managers is shifting. The delineation between the administrator (middle manager) and visionary (executive leader) is becoming increasingly blurred as business velocity continues to grow, forcing strategic decision-making further down the food chain. This enables businesses to keep pace.

The delineation between the administrator (middle manager) and visionary (executive leader) is becoming increasingly blurred as business velocity continues to grow.

As a result, the rewards of strong middle management are becoming increasingly recognized with evidence that:

  • They drive 48 percent greater profits for their organizations
  • They’re five times more likely to be able to prevent employee burnout
  • They’re six times more likely to be capable of engaging and retaining top talent

In our work with middle managers, it has become obvious that there is no such thing as simply ‘a middle manager’. This cohort is far more nuanced than the blanket label suggests.

Middle managers integral to impact

Our research shows six levels of impact most often exhibited in mid-level leadership, ranging from process administrators that are akin to traditional middle managers and moving up in value through owner, innovator, influencer, strategist and finally, to B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact. But at every level of impact, there is a political minefield to navigate, and it’s something that concerns your middle managers deeply.

The minefield of structure

Middle managers are structurally sandwiched between you and their direct reports, and have heightened responsibilities to deliver to both of your often opposing agendas – execution on the one hand, and engagement on the other. Even at the earliest stages of B-Suite impact, a failure to successfully deliver on the needs of both powerful parties is often cited as a failing, rather than the being recognized for the delicate balancing act it truly is.

The minefield of resources

Around 20 percent of leaders are what we would call ‘process owners’, and this cohort are most often complained about as being poor collaborators who hoard resources, yet are simultaneously charged with doing more with less. As a cohort, their ability to work as an effective team is fundamentally undermined by the behaviors driven by the need to fiercely guard capacity and compete for resources.

Empowering middle managers

The minefield of perceived authority

Middle managers are incredibly frustrated by the illusion of authority that goes with their role. Thirty-five percent of leaders are what we would call innovators. They have a great deal of autonomy over how the work gets done, but little to none over what work gets done.

Their teams look up to them as having influence, but the reality is that they have no say over the decisions that directly impact their function – and those same decisions impact their ability to execute, for which they are prized. Innovator leaders are among the most valuable and the most frustrated in middle management.

The minefield of communication

The natural tension between worker and executive agendas often leads to communication mismatches – where either the sending or receiving of the message was poorly done. This leaves the middle managers to recreate the message so it actually connects and is understood by both parties.

The risk of getting this wrong is high, and often leads to a leader’s integrity being questioned. The risk of persevering with poor communication leads instead to their performance being questioned. This paradox is most keenly felt by the 20 percent of leaders that we call influencers – those who are walking the tightrope between obeying and challenging the decisions their C-Suite make.

Overcoming these inherent risks requires skill, diplomacy and a keen understanding of the organizational dynamics at play.

The inherent challenges faced by your B-Suite in terms of balancing opposing expectations, limited influence, communication complexity and resource constraints combine to create an environment rich with political landmines. The result is often the classic ‘middle manager’ behaviors that make Dilbert cartoons so much fun.

Overcoming these inherent risks requires skill, diplomacy and a keen understanding of the organizational dynamics at play. Most of the time, our mid-level leaders have not been equipped with these skills and are left to fend for themselves. But these are minefields that you can navigate. If you spend an hour a month guiding your middle managers, you’ll see an outsized return on your investment.

Rebecca Houghton, author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership and architect of the community, is a Middle Management Expert and Founder of BoldHR. Houghton builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organizational, team and individual level.

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