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Rethinking the Role of the Middle Manager

The middle manager has long been viewed as the conduit between senior leadership and frontline employees in organizations. However, evolving workplace dynamics necessitate reexamining this role and redefining middle managers' responsibilities to better position them for success.


Today we will explore how organizational contexts have changed and identifies new competencies middle managers require.


Research Foundation for the Evolving Middle Manager Role

A wealth of research underscores the need to reconsider conventional views of the middle manager role. Technological advancements, shifting workforce demographics and the COVID-19 pandemic have radically altered work structures and employee expectations (Lombardi, 2021; Stempel, Rigotti & Mohr, 2015; Valcour, Bailyn & Quijada, 2007). At the same time, organizations face intensifying competition, uncertain environments and demands for agility, innovation and social responsibility (Andriopoulos & Dawson, 2020; De Smet & McGurk, 2020). These contextual forces compel middle managers to step into new responsibilities:


  • Strategic thinking and alignment: Middle managers must understand broader organizational strategies and goals to effectively guide direct reports' efforts (Wooldridge & Floyd, 1990). They are well-positioned to communicate priorities across levels and departments (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1992).

  • Change leadership: Middle managers play a vital role enacting top-level changes across operational divisions as change intermediaries (Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Buch & Sporns, 2021). Their buy-in and on-the-ground support influence change success (Herold, Fedor & Caldwell, 2007).

  • Talent development: In knowledge economies, cultivating employees' skills and empowering them as problem-solvers boosts innovation and productivity (Amabile & Khaire, 2008; Berson, Da'as & Waldman, 2015). Middle managers oversee most learning, coaching and career progression.

  • Well-being fostering: Prioritizing mental health, work-life integration and an inclusive work culture engages employees and enhances retention (Kampkötter, 2017; Odriozola-González, Planchuelo-Gómez & Irurtia, 2020). Middle managers shape day-to-day workplace experiences.


This literature indicates middle managers should shift from adhering to directives to proactively partnering in strategy execution, championing change initiatives, developing talent and cultivating well-being. Organizations ignoring these evolving expectations risk disengaged middle layers inhibiting performance. The following sections explore practical applications of this transformed middle manager role.


Empowering Middle Managers as Strategic Partners

Today's ambiguous environments call for cross-functional collaboration to address multifaceted challenges (Pucik & Tichy, 2019). Rather than waiting passively for guidance, middle managers require empowerment as strategic partners who can strategize flexibly. Three recommendations support this:


  1. Include middle managers in strategy formation. Invite their understanding of frontline realities and market conditions into strategic planning processes. Middle managers can spotlight opportunities, risks and enhance strategic sensitivity (Wooldridge et al., 2008).

  2. Equip middle managers with business insight. Expose them to financial reports, industry analyses and leadership discussions to develop a "helicopter view" for integrating operational realities with organizational direction (Balogun & Johnson, 2004).

  3. Incentivize middle managers' strategic thinking. Tie performance evaluations and compensation to strategic objectives completion in addition to functional metrics. This motivates middle managers to apply strategic lenses to operational challenges (Wooldridge et al., 2008).


For example, at Microsoft the company shifted to collaborative strategy co-creation involving middle managers. It fostered shared understanding and ownership throughout levels to accelerate cloud strategy execution (Odriozola-González et al., 2020). Empowering middle managers as strategic partners unleashes untapped potential for strategic agility.


Championing Change through Middle Managers

Middle managers play a pivotal yet often overlooked role facilitating and championing organizational changes across levels. Three ways to strengthen their change leadership abilities:


  1. Train middle managers in change management techniques. Equip them to communicate needs for change, alleviate uncertainty, gain buy-in and coach through disruption (Herold et al, 2007).

  2. Involve middle managers in change design. Their operational expertise prevents unrealistic plans. Early engagement builds confidence in proposed changes (Buch & Sporns, 2021).

  3. Highlight middle managers' advocacy. Visibly support those championing change, easing fears of punishment for perceived failures. This incentivizes others to likewise advocate boldly for transformations (Herold et al., 2007).


The Australian Department of Health successfully drove telehealth reforms through middle manager task forces coordinating adoption across health systems. Their advocacy mitigated resistance by addressing frontline concerns proactively (Buch & Sporns, 2021). Deploying middle managers as change agents facilitates transformations.


Developing Talent through Middle Managers

Middle managers oversee most learning, coaching and career development interactions crucial for nurturing high-performing, innovative workforces. Three recommendations:


  1. Equip middle managers as coaches. Teach mentoring, providing constructive feedback and empowering growth mindsets crucial for nurturing talent (Berson et al., 2015).

  2. Assign middle managers formal talent development roles. Hold them accountable for directly assessing skills gaps, crafting development plans and tracking progress (Kim et al., 2016).

  3. Incentivize investing in people. Include talent milestones like promotions, certifications or training completions in middle manager reviews alongside functional targets (Cardy & Lengnick-Hall, 2011).


At LinkedIn, middle managers receive coaching themselves on nurturing networks and facilitating learning among their teams. This ripples outward to develop an organizational learning culture prized by talent (Kim et al., 2016). Formally prioritizing learning via middle managers results in adaptive, future-ready workforces.


Fostering Employee Well-being through Middle Managers

Middle managers occupying the frontlines witness firsthand employees' work-life challenges. Three suggestions to leverage this closeness for well-being support:


  1. Train middle managers in well-being techniques. Equip them to recognize stresses, empathize non-judgmentally and offer support accessing resources (Odriozola-González et al., 2020).

  2. Assign middle managers well-being responsibilities. Hold regular check-ins, survey pulse on work environments and champion flexible policies (Kampkötter, 2017).

  3. Reward middle managers contributing to well-being. Recognize efforts promoting inclusion, integrating practices, protecting mental health or cultivating positive cultures (Valcour, 2007).


Wells Fargo assigns middle managers as employee resource group sponsors. This fosters open dialogues exploring employee needs and feed into policy changes prioritizing supports (Lombardi, 2021). Positioning middle managers at the heart of well-being fortifies engaged, high-performing teams.


Practical Applications across Industries

While contextual factors vary across industries, middle manager role transformations apply broadly with adaptations. Three industries exemplify strengths of empowered, strategic middle management:


  • Healthcare: The COVID pandemic accelerated technology adoption necessitating middle manager guidance supporting frontline teams. Boston Medical Center reskilled managers as change partners, remotely troubleshooting electronic records transitions (De Smet &McGurk, 2020).

  • Manufacturing: Artificial intelligence and robotics reshape factory roles requiring middle layer knowledge transfer. Siemens trains managers coaching multi-skilled workforces on evolving technologies to sustain competitive advantages (Amabile & Khare, 2008).

  • Technology: Rapid iterations demand agility through empowered collaboration. At Intel, rotating middle managers into strategic planning cultivates employee-suggested initiatives (Pucik & Tichy, 2019).


Across contexts, organizations reaping benefits make middle management a strategic, learning-centered part of transformation rather than an afterthought. When properly supported, middle managers unleash untapped potential for organizational success.


Conclusion

Contemporary work contexts demand broadening the conventionally narrow middle manager role. As strategic partners, change champions, talent nurturers and well-being advocates, middle managers possess capabilities leveraged for competitive advantages when organizations rethink rigid hierarchies. Empowering the middle layer through strategic inclusion, business insight development, and responsibilities centered around people cultivates engaged, future-ready workforces driving business success. While navigating evolutions takes effort, the rewards of redefined middle management roles prove well worthwhile for companies and individuals alike in today's VUCA environment.


References


  • Amabile, T. M., & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader. Harvard Business Review, 86(10), 100-109.

  • Andriopoulos, C., & Dawson, P. (2020). Managing change, creativity and innovation. Sage.

  • Balogun, J., & Johnson, G. (2004). Organizational restructuring and middle manager sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 47(4), 523-549.

  • Berson, Y., Da’as, R., & Waldman, D. A. (2015). How do leaders and their teams bring about organizational learning and outcomes? Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 79-108.

  • Buch, K., & Sporns, P. (2021). Accelerating organizational change through middle management: a view from practice. Journal of Change Management, 1-19.

  • Cardy, R. L., & Lengnick-Hall, M. L. (2011). Will they stay or will they go? Exploring a customer-oriented approach to employee retention. Journal of Business and Psychology, 26(2), 213-217.

  • De Smet, A., & McGurk, C. (2020). Organizing for the future: Five realities that will shape work post-pandemic. McKinsey Quarterly. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/organizing-for-the-future-five-realities-that-will-shape-work-post-pandemic

  • Floyd, S. W., & Wooldridge, B. (1992). Middle management involvement in strategy and its association with strategic type: A research note. Strategic Management Journal, 13(S1), 153-167.

  • Herold, D. M., Fedor, D. B., & Caldwell, S. D. (2007). Beyond change management: A multilevel investigation of contextual and personal influences on employees' commitment to change. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 942-951.

  • Kampkötter, P. (2017). Performance appraisals and job satisfaction. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 28(5), 750-774.

  • Kim, T., Hon, A. H., & Crant, J. M. (2016). Proactive personality, employee creativity, and newcomer outcomes: A longitudinal study. Journal of Business and Psychology, 31(1), 93-105.

  • Lombardi, M. (2021). How to build trust and empower employees during challenging times. Gallup Business Journal. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/337043/build-trust-empower-employees-challenging-times.aspx

  • Odriozola-González, P., Planchuelo-Gómez, Á., & Irurtia, M. J. (2020). Psychological and physical health impact of COVID-19 confinement and its associated stress factors in a representative sample in Spain. SSM-population health, 12, 100643.

  • Pucik, V., & Tichy, N. M. (2019). The challenge of managing in a VUCA world. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-challenge-of-managing-in-a-vuca-world/

  • Stempel, C. R., Rigotti, T., & Mohr, G. (2015). Think transformational leadership–think female? Leadership, 11(3), 259-280.

  • Valcour, P. M., Bailyn, L., & Quijada, M. A. (2007). Customized careers. In H. P. Gunz & M. A. Peiperl (Eds.), Handbook of career studies (pp. 188–210). Sage Publications.

  • Wooldridge, B., & Floyd, S. W. (1990). The strategy process, middle management involvement, and organizational performance. Strategic Management Journal, 11(3), 231-241.

  • Wooldridge, B., Schmidt, T., & Floyd, S. W. (2008). The middle management perspective on strategy process: Contributions, synthesis, and future research. Journal of Management, 34(6), 1190-1221.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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