Middle Management: “Whose side are you on?

You look like a trade unionist”!

The title of this note summarizes quite well, in my opinion, a frequent experience in my interaction with businessmen and executives, and reflects a peculiar reality derived from the shift from the strategic view of leaders to the tactics of middle management.

In my last post, I mentioned Google’s Project Aristotle. The tech giant set out to find the roots of effective teams. Of course, researchers first had to determine how to define and measure “effectiveness.” They looked at written code lines, fixed bugs, customer satisfaction, and more. 

But Google leaders, who had initially pushed for objective measures of effectiveness, realized that each suggested measure could have inherent flaws: more code lines are not necessarily a good thing, and more bugs fixed means more bugs were created initially. Instead, the team decided to use a combination of qualitative assessments and quantitative measures. For the qualitative evaluations, input was obtained from three different perspectives: executives, team leaders, and team members. 

While they were all asked to rate the teams on similar scales, when asked to explain their ratings, their responses showed that each one focused on different aspects when assessing the effectiveness of the team. Executives were most concerned with results (for example, sales numbers or product launches), but team members said that team culture was the most important measure of team effectiveness. In other words, a good middle manager, according to senior managers, is one that achieves business results. But a good boss, according to his collaborators, is one who achieves a cohesive team. Consistently, the concept of effectiveness defined by the team leaders encompassed both the general panorama and the concerns of individuals, defining “effectiveness” based on accountability.In Spanish, we speak of personal responsibility or individual attitude of compliance, vision and objectives as the most important measures.

The bureaucrats?

With the advent of digital technologies, middle managers seem to have achieved the ability to communicate with the entire company. 

The horizontal, networked structures, the open-door offices, could be a sign that middle management, as formal communication channels, has become obsolete.  The chain of command is no longer necessary to communicate an idea. A single WhatsApp to the group of the entire company does it. The chief executive can communicate directly with whoever he wants by email. And the “leaps” in hierarchical communication are not seen as heresy but rather as fluid handling of information.

And while it is true that the role of acting as a formal communication channel is one that is definitely out of the question, can we, therefore, conclude that middle managers do not play a role? Definitely not. His role has evolved enormously. They play important roles in shaping culture, innovation and change.

In his many years of research, Quy Huy, professor of strategy at INSEAD Business School, has found four important roles of middle managers: 1) They act as intrapreneurs. In large corporations, they have access to local markets, they have the micro vision that Top Management cannot have. But this is also true in an SME, in which the owner or chief executive cannot be in every day-to-day detail. A company that empowers and values this vision as a source of innovation and creativity certainly has an advantage over its competitors. 2) Middle managers are informal networkers. They spend all day with their teams at the company. Commonly, they share more social events than the top managers. I remember a case of an Argentine company that wanted to become professional. He hired a General Manager with a long history, knowledge of the industry, processes, strategy, etc. But the key to his success was that he recognized and knew how to use his supervisors’ 10, 15 or 20 years of experience to his advantage. They knew… They WERE the company. 3) In a VUCA world (remember, for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), change is constant. And change is also emotionally disruptive, stressful. Employees have fears, questions, needs for guidance that executives cannot answer, because the answer requires a deep knowledge of people. This is the third role: coaching. 4) They balance change and continuity in organizations. Organizations change, innovate, evolve, but to succeed is to have continuity. What determines that, after a whole process of innovation and change, a team has a sense of identity and achievement and has not dismembered? 

Middle management. A strong line of middle managers is a prerequisite for creating sustainable growth. People choose every day: they can stick to the process manual, do their job, meet the metrics that get them the bonus, or go the extra mile. They do that only if they get personal recognition, and when I say personal, I mean human, encouraged by someone with whom they have a strong personal bond, not merely hierarchical. That someone is your direct boss. I always find myself, when reading about these topics, with a metaphor about the army. Soldiers go to war for their queen or for their country, but once on the battlefield, when the shrapnel is deafening and all the values that made sense while daytime no longer motivate them, the soldiers will make an extra effort for their sergeant, who is there, with them… They make that last and decisive effort for their sergeant.

Middle managers are the nervous system of the company culture.

Let’s go back to the sentence from the title. “Which side are you on? You look like a trade unionist! Middle managers must, indeed, satisfy conflicting needs sometimes: getting results and taking care of their people. That’s the point. It’s their people. Empowering middle managers to be true leaders will result in committed collaborators with a sense of belonging who, in turn, will take care of the client. Continuing with the psychologist metaphors of the previous paragraph where we equated reason to the strategic core and emotion to culture, we could say that, just as Freud said that the Ego must satisfy two different instances (the Super-ego and the Id), middle managers must be effective both in achieving results and in creating a team and culture. The key then seems to be to empower them, train them on the task, and trust that they will find a way to take care of their people so that their people take care of the customer.

Perhaps for all this Doug Williamson – President and CEO of Beacon Group, a consultant specializing in growth, innovation and strategy, argues that middle managers are more important than executives. Middle managers seem less important in an organization chart, in fact, they are lower… but if we looked at the map of social networks, links and formal and informal connections, we would see that they are hubs, nodes, that they are influencers. In this sense, they are the nervous system of the company culture. If an idea is not validated or a project is resisted, it simply won’t work. Something like if we rationally convince ourselves of an idea, but emotionally we are not so convinced… will we do it? It is in this “social network”, whose main nodes are the middle managers, that defines the way in which the company is managed, what is valued will be done. That is what we call culture. And that’s why, as John Burdet says, a leadership expert whom I met while at Transearch: culture feeds on strategy.