The Middle Management Gap

March 17, 2012 -- Sal Silvester

They are sometimes viewed as "caught in the middle."

And for good reason. Senior leaders above them impose strategy that they are required to implement, and the team members who work for them look up for direction and support.

Meet the middle manager.

Now, most middle managers I know are enthusiastic, smart, and able, but there are several challenges that they face that usually go unseen.

Challenge 1: They are expected to rollout strategy without clarity of a clear vision and goals from senior leadership.

Challenge 2: The invisible gap in communication between senior management and middle managers.

Challenge 3: Inconsistency in performance feedback from senior leaders to middle managers.

Challenge 4: Micro-management from above that forces everyone to lead at a lower level.

Are you caught in the middle or know someone who is? If so, read on.

Challenge #1: Implement Strategy without Clarity of Vision and Goals

In several of my recent Leadership Development Performance sessions we've focused on creating and communicating a vision and aligning organizational goals. Consistently, across several of the clients I work with, middle managers asked questions such as "what is the vision for this organization?" "what is the vision for my department, shouldn't I know that first?" "what are the strategic goals for the organization?" "what are the strategic goals for my department?"

The challenge is that if middle managers don't truly understand the vision and strategic objectives of an organization, (1) it's very difficult to rollout strategy and and change initiatives, and (2) you can bet your bottom dollar that your front line employees don't understand the vision and organizational goals either.

Challenge #2: The Invisible Gap in Communication Between Senior Management and Middle Management.

This is a classic challenge, especially in mid-sized organizations. Senior leaders think they are over-communicating and mid-level managers often feel left out of the loop. This typically happens when announcements, changes, policy updates, etc. are communicated from senior leaders to the entire company at one single point in time (e.g., usually the all-staff meeting). There are three problems that result when organizations skip the middle manager level when communicating information.

(1) they lose the opportunity to gain mid-level management's ideas in how a decision could be rolled out (notice I didn't say input into the actual decision itself),

(2) that leads to an erosion of mid-level manager trust in senior leadership, and

(3) that inevitably results in a loss of commitment from mid-level managers - even when middle managers believe the change is a good idea!

And, without middle management trust and commitment - changes, policy updates, or whatever initiative you are attempting to rollout, often fail or are met with resistance because it's the mid-level managers who are the ones required to implement what's rolling down from the top.

Challenge #3: Inconsistency in Performance Feedback from Senior Leaders to Managers

This is another classic challenge and the symptoms typically bubble to the surface when middle managers attend a leadership development program and senior leaders don't think they need the same training. As middle managers begin to see that their role is no longer that of the "doer" and they now have to get things done through others, they embrace key skills like creating a vision, setting goals, and providing performance feedback. And as they learn these skills they ask questions like "why doesn't my manager do these things with me?" In one of my recent leadership development programs, there were several middle managers who said that they almost never receive performance feedback throughout the year from their senior leaders.

Challenge 4: Micro-management that Forces Everyone to Lead at a Lower Level

Underlying several of these challenges are that many  senior leaders clog up the leadership pipeline by leading at lower levels than where they should be. Their tendencies are to be overly tactical, day-to-day oriented, and caught up in the weeds. That ripples downward through the organization and every leader beneath that senior leader is also forced to operate one level below where they should be. For example, Functional Leaders perform like Managers, Managers perform like Supervisors, and Supervisors perform like Team leaders.  As a result, the overall organizational culture rewards tactical/day-to-day behavior and leaders never get to do what they are supposed to do - which is to think about the future. (Managers focus on today).

The result of all these challenges usually comes in the form of lost trust and commitment to senior leaders, and, that typically rolls down hill to team members on the front line.

So, how can you overcome these four challenges?

Stay tuned for our newsletter in April and we'll provide 4 clear strategies to help you close the middle management gap.

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