The world is increasingly complex. The lifespan of companies has decreased significantly; from 60 years to below 30. Technology is increasing exponentially; it’s expected there will be 1 trillion sensors connected to the internet by 2025. The number of factors that could influence a given organization is unfathomable.
With this being the case, how do we future-proof our organizations?
Focus on the middle.
While senior leaders are the most visible and “powerful” in some respects, it is the middle manager/operational core that has the largest impact on actual behavior and team performance.
Just think of the numbers. Middle managers have more interactions with employees, and therefore far greater influence over their experience, job satisfaction, and effectiveness. They also have more knowledge than senior leaders about what works and doesn’t when it comes to day-to-day operations.
Middle managers are the people that need to be aware of environmental conditions, armed with the skills to deal with them, and given the freedom to respond to the needs of their team and the market. Without that foundation, any vision of a fast, contemporary, resilient way of operating is doomed to failure.
Unfortunately, it is commonly the case that this critical layer of organizations is broken.
In a 2014 HBR article, it was reported that the employees self-reporting in the bottom 5% of “commitment” and “engagement” weren’t underperformers — they were largely middle managers who received “good” (not superior, not terrible) performance reviews. In another study, it was found that middle managers are also significantly more likely to have anxiety and depression than blue collar workers or executives and owners (18% vs. 12% and 11%, respectively).
People in middle management are often unhappy and the people around them are unhappy with them. They’re stuck in what some call a “contradictory-class location”: They have more autonomy and higher wages than their direct reports, but still have to enforce policies and decisions they play no part in making.
They get the downsides of being a subordinate, and work as a manager without the perks.
Having to play the game of bureaucracy, a game which is particularly painful when you’re stuck in the middle, doesn’t lend itself to facilitating an environment that promotes creative problem solving and innovative thinking.
The problem isn’t the people who hold these roles. It’s the flaws inherent in the way the roles themselves are designed.
If you want to future-proof your organization, redefining the role of middle management and the mindsets associated with it is a core component. If you do this successfully, you’ll be unleashing mental horsepower that’s currently bogged down in politics or administrivia.
What does redefining these roles look like?
1. Middle Manager → Coach
When bureaucracy first developed, it was a necessary thing, because there were fewer people with a higher education and information wasn’t easy to access. The ability to comprehend all of the parts in an organization and to read the market was specialized; rigid systems were more necessary to tell people how to do their jobs.
Now, the majority of the population receives higher education (just under 70% in the U.S. in 2014 according to NCES), and access to information is far more ubiquitous with the advent of the internet and other knowledge management technology. Teams don’t need to be told what to do; they need to be supported, guided, and developed.
This role shift means a change in a few key job elements.
First, it makes developing employees a key aspect of fulfilling the role. A middle manager controls activities, while a coach teaches and trains. There is a fundamental shift from telling teams how they need to get their work done to telling teams what needs to be accomplished, and allowing the how to ultimately be determined by the team itself.
Second, it highlights the obvious fact that team members are the ones playing the game. The team leader sets an environment and develops systems that enable the team members to perform and improvise in response to conditions that arise. Team leaders and their superiors need to understand that, just like in sports, team performance is based on strong fundamentals.
The exact moves that are going to be needed to succeed can’t be predicted, so team members need the tools to process information as they get it and adapt as needed.
If the role of middle management is defined as that of a coach, the people filling those roles will take on those accountabilities. They’ll be motivated to develop a more effective, dynamic, and responsive team.
How do we translate this role shift into reality? Try moving from fixed goals to continuous steering, and from arbitrary deadlines to continuous, transparent communication and feedback. Oh, and let’s stop calling this role “middle management.” We’ll go with team leaders for lack of a better phrase.
2. Enforcer → Entrepreneur
In most of the change initiatives I’ve seen, the question “What’s stopping them?” is frequently asked. “We’ve given them permission, what’s holding them back?” “They have the tools they need, what else is getting in the way?”
A question I hear far less often is, “Why would they want to?”
A team leader as an “enforcer” is expected to pass along the decisions from on-high and push their teams to follow them. This doesn’t work well in the face of a complex environment. Things move too quickly and senior leadership is too far removed from the day-to-day operations to know what the specific needs are.
On top of that, team leaders are frequently blamed when things don’t work. People who don’t feel empowered or inspired in their own role don’t inspire and motivate their teams. They’re also less likely to point out a bad idea because their role has been structured to reward following orders, not evaluating whether those orders make sense.
Both senior leadership and those in the middle need to shift to thinking about team leaders as entrepreneurs.
Team leaders should be constantly scanning for needs and opportunities, not waiting to be told what to do or executing just because they were told do so. They should be looking at their team as something they have ownership over; seeking out ways to improve its way of operating — not just passing orders or driving work.
This also means that when senior leadership wants a change in the way things are run, there needs to be dialogue about the value for teams, just as there would be if you were pitching the adoption of some new product or process to a business owner.
To convey the message that team leaders fill an entrepreneur role, and promote a real change in mindset, consider defining the decision space of team leaders to include autonomy over their team’s core accountabilities. A participatory governance process is another way to implement this shift. It would give team leaders (and team members) a process to translate the tensions they feel into actual improvements. People are far more likely to actively improve the way they work if they have a tool to do so. Lastly, adopt a transparent project management tool like Trello to allow flexibility in how work gets done, while maintaining accountability through transparency rather than micromanagement.
3. Supervisor → Problem Solver
Another common mindset that puts organizations at risk is the perception of team leader as supervisor rather than problem solver. There is a pervasive condition of learned helplessness in many traditional bureaucracies.
People communicate things they feel need to be fixed to their team leads, but with the belief they are reporting an issue to a supervisor. If we’re lucky, team leaders pass those thoughts up to the “real leaders,” and then everyone waits for issues to be fixed. These “real leaders” are typically senior folks who, even if they could really solve the root cause of a problem, likely don’t have the time.
On the flip side of this coin, senior leaders complain that people don’t act, yet continue to step in with top-down solutions. For example, a leader might make the final decision if two individuals can’t come to agreement over conflicting priorities. While this solves a one-time conflict, it reinforces reliance on that leader to settle disputes. A process for making decisions and weighing priorities against criteria would be a far more sustainable and objective way to manage these types of conflicts.
This type of top-down action reinforces the message that those in the middle are incapable of figuring things out themselves and perpetuates a learned helplessness mentality. People live up or down to the expectations you give them.
Typically, if people aren’t actually capable of making these types of decisions, it’s for one of three reasons:
- they don’t have the information they need
- they don’t have the skills, or
- they don’t have the support
Consider how you can meet these needs and enable people to act on their own. Make information accessible through cloud-based tools (like Google Drive and Tettra), or open forums (like a cadenced Ask Me Anything session on strategy), share the context behind recent decisions, coach people to take ownership of their work, and invest in skills training.
4. Steward → Connector
Lastly, those in the middle should not be defined as just stewards of their individual team, but as connectors between communities. The power in organizations lies in the networks within them. Using networks is key to future-proofing your organization, leveraging collective intelligence, and making quick pivots.
Yet, traditional middle management roles provide no incentive or accountability to understand organizational networks, nor leverage or contribute to them. With rigid targets, high accountability, and low value placed on taking time to experiment, team leaders don’t look across boundaries to understand what is being worked on by other teams. They don’t encourage their team members to either, for similar reasons.
Team leaders should have a core responsibility to understand what is happening in an organization beyond their own team. A habit of sharing their own team’s work, pulling in lessons from other teams, and connecting team members to other resources will markedly improve team performance. A marketing department that frequently talks to the communications department is going to be far more effective than one that operates independently, and vice versa. Middle managers shouldn’t be the only channel for communication across boundaries; they should be unblocking and creating channels for others to talk to each other directly.
Consider baking the routine of connecting into day-to-day work through the creation of cross-functional forums to discuss priorities and understand stakeholders in decisions; this will allow team members to periodically share information and ask each other questions directly. Interface metrics that track work dependent on multiple teams are another tool to encourage paying attention to the work happening in other departments. Lastly, adopt a communication tool like Slack that allows for discussion in open channels and forums.
Middle management can either be an organization’s driving force or its biggest drag. Which will it be for you?
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