There are few things more ridiculed in corporate culture then the middle manager. Executives usually get their fair share of hate but they also get some glorification as “kings of industry” or job creators. We rarely see the middle manager treated in such glorious fashion.
Once a position aspired to, the middle manager has fallen by the wayside and is now thought of as a relic of the past. There is an easy explanation for that: innovations in technology has enabled businesses to remove entire layers of middle management and individual contributors. It seems that in our never ending quest for greater efficiency and lean organizations we’ve also forgotten the value of good middle managers as anything other than task managers.
A recent study detailed in Harvard Business Review blogs, describes the importance of middle managers as companies undergo major change efforts:
“I recently conducted a study of 56 randomly selected companies involved in major change and innovation efforts in the high-tech, retail, pharmaceutical, banking, automotive, insurance, energy, non-profit, and health care industries. Nearly 68% of these large-scale change and innovative efforts failed…The result was startling: Aside from the role of the senior executives, the most important determinant of success was the role of MLMs [Mid-Level Managers, emphasis added]. In the successful initiatives, MLMs served as levers of change, influencing those above and below them in the corporate hierarchy.”
The study found three things were important to the success of the change initiative from the perspective of the MLM, to paraphrase:
Alignment – Managers goals were aligned with the change initiative
Authorship – the best companies put together cross functional teams of middle managers and used those teams to create initiatives aligned with organizational goals
Actions- Managers put into place initiatives and are held accountable for the results.
This is all good information but it is also common sense. When you are trying to change an organization why wouldn’t you involve your middle managers? IMHO if you want successful change it has to come from the top, the bottom and the middle. I would go one step further and set up cross functional teams at the employee level as well. I don’t think it is enough to develop initiatives at the MLM level, I would argue there is just as much if not more value on the employee level.
I’m also interested to see how the perception of middle management influences decision making at the top. Are executives and consultants sitting in the proverbial ivory tower assuming that middle managers are task managers and can’t handle the strategy? Is there a belief that middle managers should stick to tasks and leave the strategy to the experts?
If that is the case it isn’t hard to understand how 68% of large-scale change initiatives fail. One of the bonuses of a leaner organization is that all employees are closer to the business and performance expectations are higher. We shouldn’t demand change and at the same time assume middle managers are the same task masters of the past.