Middle managers are your catalysts for change
What is your initial reaction when you hear the term ‘middle management’? I’m guessing it isn’t 100% positive. There seem to be so many negative associations with the term. Middle management is seen as something to something to avoid or be ashamed of. It certainly isn’t aspirational to be a middle manager in the way being a leader is. It’s not seen as being as purposeful as being on the frontline.
My network contains people who imagine a workplace without middle management. Maybe this is self-managed teams or an even more fundamental shift in how we organise at work. I’m all for thinking more radically about how we organise at work, but almost all organisations do have middle managers now and will continue to do so for a good while yet. In this reality, we need to give middle managers the support and the tools to be successful and give them more respect for the difficult work they do.
Middle managers are often magnets for blame from both the top and the frontline. I’ve been in meetings with union representatives who have said that leaders are great, but it was middle managers that were preventing/blocking improvements for frontline staff. It is the same in meeting with leaders, a sense that if managers just did what the leaders had explained to them then issue X wouldn’t be a problem, and initiative Y would have been a success.
There is a belief that middle managers dilute the messages and aspirations of leaders or just don’t get it (whatever ‘it’ is.) This can be big cultural ideas around inclusivity or using a new ‘self-service’ IT product. It always seems to be the manager that has failed and not the system and/or the decision made around them.
We need to stop blaming middle managers and instead see them as vital catalysts for change in our organisations and in our communities. This means shifting how organisations engage and include managers in decision-making and how they are supported to be successful.
At their best, middle managers can be the glue that holds organisations together. They can be the organisation’s communicators — the translators or ideas into practice. They are the people who are both doers and leaders; they have to manage stakeholders in all directions; understand the detail of the work and the big picture ambitions of the organisation. If we view them though this lens, then I believe we’d engage with them more effectively.
Great middle management takes skill, confidence, support from those around you, and the system conditions that allow for success.
If you are a middle manager reading this then I want to thank you. You are doing hard and important work. If I were to give any advice (from my own experience) it would be to stay true to your values and be brave in your communications, especially when asking for help.