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Stuck In The Middle With You

It feels like every time a major business has a restructure, it becomes a cull on middle management. Clearly, middle management are expendable.

More than once, I have heard Directors moan that their middle managers are a blocker to innovation and change. Clearly, middle management are stuck in the mud.

Finally, if you are my age, Reggie Perrin represented middle management, or Jerry Leadbeater from the Good Life. If you are younger, maybe it is David Brent. Clearly, middle management are buffoons adding little discernible value to their workplaces.

Obviously that is not the case, so I am going to stand up for the millions of middle managers across the world. I am going to show you that they are not the weakest link in the chain ... but they are the engine for ideas, growth and progress.

The reality is that life as a middle manager means having to balance the demands of senior management, the interactions with other departments and the needs of their team. The demands from above can result in trying to work out how to meet goals set from above without them seeing the whole context. The interactions from other departments can lead to struggles over limited budgets or resources or meeting deadlines set by other departments. Finally, middle managers have to inspire their own team.

Firstly, let’s remember that middle managers are intensely proud of what their teams do. They will fight to make sure that their team has the resources needed to succeed. This also means they are ideally placed to see problems and fix them ... but they need the autonomy to do that. Granting them greater autonomy allows them to use their experience to get the best out of their teams. Granting them autonomy means setting out expectations around behaviours and outcomes but giving the managers the freedom to decide how they will work.

Secondly, like everyone else, they take immense pride in their own work. They want to know they are contributing and that their ideas are heard. By allowing managers the opportunity to try new ideas, to experiment and fail (safely), you can create an energy and vibrance throughout your organisation. By giving them the freedom to experiment and fail, they will create the new ideas that will keep the business ahead of the game.

Finally, middle managers are the future leaders. They are developing the skills that will allow them, some day, to lead a department or sit on the Board. It is also important to note that if you won't support their development, they will go somewhere where they think they can grow. So, it makes sense to invest in their progress to ensure they become highly skilled managers. This does not just mean putting them on a leadership development programme but ensuring they see development as part of a process. They need to be given opportunities to put skills into practice and opportunities to learn more about the wider business. 

I appreciate that these things often require an element of risk-taking, and, in a high pressure environment, it can be hard to keep your minds clear enough to understand the risks and the rewards. However, organisations that take risks reap benefits. By engaging with your middle managers and giving them training, opportunities, autonomy, they will grow in confidence and become the strongest part of your organisation. By investing in their growth, you will also be able to embed organisational values and policies within them to ensure they have the framework they need to be consistent with the rest of the organisation, the knowledge to understand how they fit in with the wider organisation and the skills to deliver high quality work.

So let's have less culls, less moans, less satire and more celebration of middle management.

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