Middle level Managers and their Role in Organizational Performance
Middle level Managers and their Role in Organizational Performance
Hierarchy in the organization plays an important role in its effective functioning. The hierarchy in the organization brings multiple levels of management. Since each level of management interacts with other levels, it adds value to other levels both by being thrilled from them and influencing them. The middle level managers by mediating between senior management and operational personnel play an important role in improving organizational performance by adding value to the functioning of both the senior management and operational personnel with their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours.
Further, the middle level managers not only act as important link and interface between the senior management and the operating personnel, but also they are the central contact point for supporting service departments. They are, in fact, placed horizontally and vertically in the heart of the organization. They are responsible to interpret and later transmit the defined strategies into management decisions and corporate action which is only one of their main tasks.
From a traditional point of view, middle level managers are seen as the practitioners and information suppliers of the decisions made by the senior management of the organization. Hence, this group of executives is responsible for performing the second level executive functions within an organizational department such as production, quality control, marketing, finance, and research and development etc. The importance of the middle level managers can be seen in the implementation of the organizational objectives set by senior management, which include deploying of the resources, contacting other departments, and directing the operation of the department. The main difference from other management levels is that it combines senior management knowledge with operational knowledge. Hence, the middle level managers are to be close to the senior management for receiving the orders from the senior management, and they also have to be close to the operational personnel to understand how these orders are fulfilled and evaluated. This is the combination which enables them to mediate between the organizational strategy and the operational activities.
In terms of strategic management, middle level managers draw attention as a segment which plays a role in competitive strategies and tries to be more effective than the formation of basic strategies. In other words, middle level managers are the new generation strategists who are stuck between competition strategies and operational efficiency. There are three different definitions / descriptions for the middle level managers. All of them, though meaningful, do not describe accurately the middle level managers.
As per the first definition, middle level managers comprises of managers who head specific departments (such as operation, marketing, and finance etc.), or divisions, or who serve as project managers in a flat organization. Middle level managers are responsible for the implementation of the management’s policies and plans and typically have two management levels below them. This level of management normally constitutes the thickest layer of managers in a traditional (tall pyramid shaped) organization. Fig 1 shows the management levels in the organization.
Fig 1 Management levels in the organization
As per the second definition, the middle level managers are in the unique position of being placed in such a way that they have access to the senior management and they can command the loyalty of the regular employees at the operational level. Hence, any organizational initiative has to necessarily take into account the importance of the middle level managers in the larger scheme of things.
As per the third definition, the middle level managers are the intermediate management level accountable to the senior management and responsible for leading the operational personnel. The four characteristics which distinguishes the middle level managers are (i) recognition of the specific responsibilities and job functions which are frequently assigned to them, (ii) they are at the centre of a hierarchical organization, and subordinate to the senior management but are above the operational personnel, (iii) they are accountable the senior management for the function of their department, (iv) they provide guidance to operational personnel and inspire them to perform better, and (v) their functions normally revolve around enabling teams of employees to perform effectively and efficiently and reporting these performance indicators to the senior management.
The position of the middle level managers is important since they are the ‘link pins’ between senior management and the operational personnel who are in close contact with various employees of the organization. They have two ways channels of functioning since they receive messages from senior management and turn these messages into actions, making sure that the various components are compatible with each other. In this sense, the organization has two important expectations from the middle level managers namely (i) to convey the decisions taken by the senior management to the operational personnel to ensure effective implementation, (ii) to transfer the reaction and implementation results to the senior management. They get this information by actively participating in the operations. The role of middle level manager needs the ability to shape, use, influence, persuade, and facilitate communication channels. Hence, middle level managers, as members of the senior management team and organizational department representatives, act as a starting point in actions to be put forward. Thus, they have a positive or negative direct effect on the results of the action. Fig 2 shows the position and role of middle level managers.
Fig 2 Position and role of middle level managers
Since early 1990s, notably with regards to the paradigm shifts and the realization of the business process reengineering, the question for the necessity of middle level managers has been raised. A quite high number of the organizational managements started considering the middle level managers as an important cost factor for the organization. Frequently the removal of middle level managers under the name of restructuring or cost reduction became an important objective for the organization. Hence, several middle level managers’ positions had fallen victim to the flattening of hierarchies resulting from restructurings. Further, technology can replace several roles such as communicating strategy, performance monitoring, and providing feedback, traditionally the field of the middle level managers. Therefore, middle level managers are under pressure to justify their assets and values in the modern organizations.
On the other hand, supporters highlight the importance of the middle level managers and encourage them, as their work contribute in a very highly manner to the success of the organization. These organizational managements prefer simpler organizational hierarchies where team members take responsibility for authority and decision-making. Accordingly, they expect intermediate levels (if any) to play more limited roles in information sharing and decision-making. Today, the profile for the middle level manager is important and to a certain extent intellectual property plays a key role for the success of the middle level manager. Soft skills like emotional intelligence as well as the importance of leadership skills are also important.
In recent decades, the role of the middle level managers has changed. Constant reengineering of the organization, increasing automation of work and the impact of information technology (IT) has diminished the need of the middle level managers in several organizations dramatically. Downsizing has also led to reduced job security and increased work pressure, because the remaining middle level managers need to work harder and longer and have a larger span of control. However, middle level managers remain the critical interface between senior management and the operational personnel and the valuable contributions they can make to organizations is well recognized.
Middle level managers face higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, hypertension, heart disease, and similar ailments in cognitive performance and focus. If these problems regarding middle level managers are left unresolved, this can harm the productivity (purpose) of the organization or undermine very important organizational processes such as adaptation and strategy implementation.
Until the 1980s, the importance of middle level managers was considered in terms of their hierarchical position and their role in the implementation of strategic directives. However, the increasing positive opinions about the strategic value of middle level managers have been compromising with the claim that their roles have changed rather than decreasing, especially as a result of new technologies and organizational reforms. In the recent years, the duties and responsibilities of the middle level managers have expanded, and they have started to be involved in the strategic management process over time.
In the present day organization, it is important to re-evaluate the changing roles of middle level managers in this sense and to determine where and how they are involved in the strategy and organizational processes. It is frequently seen that the role of the middle level managers in creating strategy is limited to providing input. Their primary role therefore is the implementation of the strategy. This point of view is in direct contrast to the thinking that separating the strategy formulation from strategy implementation creates a false division of labour between senior management (thinking) and other organizational members (practice).
The thinking that middle level managers play an important role in both the formulation and implementation of strategic change is gradually increasing. This thinking considers middle level managers at the centre of organizational processes as decision makers linking strategic thinking with the field of application. The middle level managers turn organizational strategy into operational goals and inform senior management about the progress of implementation. As a matter of fact, the level of success of strategic change efforts increases when middle level managers participate in the strategy formulation. Further, the degree to which middle level managers are included in decisions on strategy formulation frequently affects their implementation efforts. Hence, the high participation of these managers in the strategy formulation also greatly influences the success level of the ensuing implementation efforts. As a matter of fact, it has been observed that the decisions and actions of middle level managers affect considerably the organizational performance.
Increasing productivity is directly related to creative and mainly innovative skills of the middle level managers. They need not have to be extraordinary individuals, but have to share a number of characteristics such as comfortable with change, clarity on direction, thoroughness, participative management style, persistence, and discretion.
The focus on the middle level manager is primarily on two aspects namely (i) position in the hierarchy, and (ii) function rendered by him. The ‘position’ of the middle level manager ranges from the level below senior management to one level above the line managers. Middle level managers hold a unique position in the organization. Examples of middle level managers include general managers (divisional heads), functional managers (department heads) and team or project based executives or project leaders. From the perspective of the ‘function’, middle level management is defined as the coordination of the organizational daily routine activities with the activities of vertically related groups. Middle level managers are responsible for a sub-functional work flow of the department / division. They are to communicate effectively between senior management and the operating personnel. For accomplishing this goal, they are to play strategic role. They have to synthesize information to be exchanged for championing innovative ideas, facilitate adaptability among subordinates, and implementing strategy by integrating subordinates activities.
The function of middle level managers is a difficult one since it is the key position between the shop floor personnel and senior management. On the one hand they have to translate strategy and on the other hand they need to pay attention to the day-to-day problems on the shop floor. There is a constant struggle between the policy of the organization and actual running the organization. Middle level managers have an important role in disseminating knowledge widely throughout the organization and work as mediators between day-to-day operations and strategy. They have to be constantly alert in an environment in which cutting budgets and lifecycle management are a true art form like cost cutting, more efficiency, and in the end delivering the same or even more. Although there is a view that the middle level managers are just ‘passing through’ on their way to senior management positions, it is important to realize that majority of the organizations need middle level managers who are there to stay for the long run.
Middle level managers are important for the organization when it comes to change management, formulating strategy, and driving performance. They are close to the daily operations but far enough away to see the bigger picture. They play an important role in the implementation of organizational strategies and in facilitating change in the organization. They have an important role in disseminating knowledge widely throughout the organization and work as mediators between day-to-day operations and strategy.
Incorporating entrepreneurial activities within an organization is considered as strategic change process. Senior management makes bold efforts to change the behaviour of employees from performing regular and routine work schedule to think creatively and suggest innovative new product ideas or modification in the process. This strategic shift needs ‘change agents’ and middle level managers perfectly fit into this role. Hence, the successful implementation of ‘corporate entrepreneurship’ initiative depends largely on the abilities of the middle level managers to execute it.
Middle level managers are believed to link different skills, resources, and knowledge in pursuit of the strategic goals as defined by the senior management. There are several factors which can limit the middle level managers’ willingness or ability to facilitate corporate entrepreneurship. Some management demands work schedules which leave little time for innovation and experimentation. These are formidable challenges which can stifle middle level managers’ efforts aimed at encouraging and promoting corporate entrepreneurship.
Middle level managers have traditionally been seen as suppliers of information and the consumers of the decisions made by the senior management. The object of the communication system is coordination of all aspects of the organization. Instead of top-down or bottom-up models, there is also the ‘middle-up-down’ approach emphasizing the ‘knowledge creation’ by the middle level managers. Middle level managers are synonymous with ‘backwardness’, ‘stagnation’ and ‘“resistance to change’ but they are the key to continuous innovation. In the process of knowledge creation, they play an important role building up a new organization structure and transforming knowledge between the traditional hierarchical system and project teams.
Middle level managers are in a strong position to introduce organizational change. Foreseeing turbulent times ahead, Peter Drucker had said, the very term ‘middle management’ is becoming meaningless in the context of what he called as the ‘double-headed monster’. Drucker emphasized the important role of middle level managers in creating and maintaining effective management systems. Upward influence is normally associated with consensus decisions, commitment to goals, and innovation. Normally rigid conformity and excessive emphasis on harmony can make it difficult for middle level managers to achieve new strategic initiatives.
Some of the large organizations reduce the power of senior management, since middle level managers gain control over the information. Since middle level managers know more about what is going on at the operational level, they also can filter out information before passing it upto the senior management. They frequently show dissatisfaction when they are excluded from the strategic process. Hence, senior management is required to pay attention to the conditions wherein middle level managers are likely to experience exclusion, inclusion, and sustained energy on the strategic issues. Middle level managers feel exclusion when there is environment of resisted conversation, lack of formal or informal mechanisms to allow middle level managers to communicate cross-functionally, or when general strategic discussions are limited to top status group. Hence, the senior management is required to address the ‘exclusion and inclusion’ issues strategically and tactfully to convert the relationships with the middle level managers into positive relationships in order to gain better long-term results.
Middle level managers who has longer work experience with their senior management has also been seen as the key influencers in strategic decision making by creating and building mutual trust. The proximity of middle level managers to the operational employees and opportunity to identify conflicts and problems, as well as decoding corporate messages for the employees play a key role in managing change and contributing to the organizational desired goals. However, when the necessary power and tasks are removed from middle level managers or when they perceive the senior management’s leadership negatively, then middle level managers become reluctant managers. Building team work, knowledge and consciousness of organizational goals depends on how middle level managers perceive their leaders and their strategic visions.
Middle level managers are no longer being considered as instructors and sole knowledge carriers, but the manager of the information flow. They are responsible for a specific part of the organization and frequently positioned to force and realize changes in the department. Because of the changes towards an information society, the roles of the middle level managers now include planner, coordinator, leader, problem solver, and negotiator. For the accomplishment of these roles, certain skills and qualifications / competencies are needed in the middle level managers so that they can effectively perform these roles. The needed skills can be human relations, emotional and social skills, and conceptual skills to manage attention, along with trust and time management.
Middle level managers are more than just the level between the operating personnel and the senior management. They are to promote the mission of the organization, fulfill the organizational objectives, support the employees and navigate successfully in the competitive environment with innovation, and creativity.
Tasks and functions
In view of the central position of the middle level managers, it is clear that they are seen as collection point for all kind of requests within the organization. But only after a closer look it is obvious, that they are not only the interface between the senior management and the operating personnel, but also the focal point between horizontally spread supporting units. Middle level managers are the so-called invisible key players, highly contributing to the organizational success, although their performance is practically never seen by people outside the organization.
One of the most important functions of the middle level manager is to ensure the flow of information. To ensure that developed strategies by the senior management get through to the operating personnel, the middle level manager needs to transmit such strategies into partial strategies. These strategies mainly consist of ideas and plans whereas on the opposite, the operating personnel ‘uses’ the middle level managers as the mouthpiece to communicate their ideas, suggestions, and problems to the senior management.
Towards customers, the middle level managers also carry out an information brokerage, since they are the one responsible for the customer relationship management at a certain level. There is one more relation of a middle level manager where an appropriate information flow cannot be underestimated. This is the relation with other middle level managers within the organization. The exchange of the information between the middle level managers is extremely important as very frequently the pieces of information which are received for example from the senior management can be understood in different manners. To avoid misunderstandings, to check, whether more than only one department is concerned by a request, to gather a maximum of information and to find solutions within a team, this information exchange is indispensable.
The second most important task to be fulfilled by the middle level manager is the tieing upto the transformation of strategies. Middle level managers need to ensure that the plans and the vision of the senior management are understandable and comprehensible for the people working on the implementation. Only if a strategy is being operationalized, clearly structured and well communicated, the adjusting wheels are positioned to realize the organizational objectives. The task of the middle level manager consists in the preparation of the operationalization considering the impacts on the concerned departments of the organization.
Without a break, this leads to the relationships the middle level managers maintain. They do not only work closely with people from all the departments of the organization, but is in regular contact with people outside the organization. Inside the organization, a middle level manager is frequently not just the professional superior, but also a kind of shelter, especially for younger employees. Nevertheless, it is important for the middle level managers not to let these relations influence their work, even though sometimes it is hard to take decisions necessary to achieve organizational objectives, while on the other hand, these decisions cannot please everyone.
In order to find a balance between unpleasant announcements and the reactions from concerned people, the middle level manager needs to convey information. This additional task is in so far an important one, as the business processes move forward much better when people feel comfortable in their working environment. To avoid unpleasantness, regular and clearly formulated communications and explications are essential.
Also, the relations with external people are quite important. Customers consider the middle level managers as their contact persons, representative for the senior management. In this function, the middle level managers fulfill an additional representative role. Likewise, subordinate to the organization’s size and the density of the cooperation between the senior management and the middle level manager, a further task in the development of strategies completes the list of tasks. This involvement clearly depends on the style of leadership, whereas a tendency to a deeper cooperation can be seen in small and medium-sized organizations rather than in large organizations. But, this task is not ever-present and hence has to be considered as an extra task in some organizations.
The issue of blurred boundaries
Among other things, the middle level managers face the issue of blurred boundaries. The work of a middle level manager varies a lot depending on the size of the organization, the instructions from the senior management, the number of employees working as operational personnel under them, the organizational culture, leadership, the industry sector of the organization, the geographical location of the organization, and in particular due to requirements given by the predominant social society. Further, the level of middle level managers is a fast moving level which needs to adapt continuously. This leads to the problem of defining the role and job description of this level of managers. In most cases, the middle level managers neither have a formulated framework of tasks to be done nor anything like timesheets containing their valuable working hours and hence their performance is very hard to evaluate.
In some organizations the performance is tried to be measured with the help of the ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs). A KPI is only as valuable as the action it inspires. Frequently, organizations blindly adopt KPIs popular in the industry and then wonder why that KPIs do not match the requirements of the organizational operations and fail to affect any positive change. One of the most important, but frequently overlooked, aspects of KPIs is that they are a form of communication. As such, they abide by the same rules and best-practices as any other form of communication. Short, compact, clear and relevant KPIs are much more likely to be absorbed and acted upon.
Also, in some cases where a working level employee becomes middle level manager then there is frequently authority related issues arising and the manager in several cases lack authority and respect from co-employees. So it can be the case, that the instructions are neither accepted nor respected. This discrepancy is not only a problem between the middle level manager and the working level, but also can be between the manager and other middle level managers and sometimes even between the manager and senior management.
It is essential in an organization for its proper functioning that collaboration exists at all the levels. The senior management provides a maximum of information so that the middle level managers are able to take a position and to define their main tasks. Every employee is to be aware of the fact, that the middle level manager has an essential role to fulfill. Ideally, this role is being described with the help of regular internal communications.
Awareness and reputation of middle level manager
In general, the present reputation of the middle level managers is unfortunately not good. Colloquially, the term ‘paralyzing layer’ is being used to explain, why something within the organization is not working or to have someone to blame in case of failure. It is much easier for the senior management to pass on to the middle level manager any bad criticism than to take the responsibility.
Middle level managers neither belong to the category of operating personnel, nor to the senior management. They are a kind of leader, but are also being led. Apparently they are able to be chiefs, but only for a small group of people within the organization.
Middle level managers are frequently being seen as scapegoats when the senior management is not satisfied with the strategic line of approach, or when the results are below expectations, though the below expectation results can be due to (i) aspiration level being too high, (ii) the period of time for implementation is too short, or (iii) the reason for the dissatisfaction is the gap of social distance between the senior management and the middle level manager, which makes it impossible to successfully collaborate.
The work and the performance of the middle level managers are normally invisible. For the outside persons their efforts are elusive and even within the organization, it is absolutely possible that middle level managers are not perceived as such. There is a lack of transparency which leads to the fact that only a very limited number of persons is conscious of the work done by middle level managers. This is inspite of the fact that there is regular coordination which takes place between the employees and their respective middle level managers. The collaboration allows improving on technical aspects in an easier way as with the senior management, since the middle level managers are normally more accessible.
Also, the planning of the work to be done such as, envisaged conferences, customer visits, and meetings are much clearer, which can be discussed in advance. Tasks are attributed, feedback is given and there is always the possibility to discuss own projects, career plans, but also if something is not working well. Such collaboration is to be individually developed by the middle level managers.
The normal tasks done by the middle level managers involve the fine-tuning of the work realized by the operating personnel, as well as coordination of the project, briefing to the senior management. Coordination of all colleagues, organization of meetings, review of administrative processes within the organization, and establishment of new working processes are some of the tasks. More or less, some tasks are well known, others are not at all.
The coordination between senior management and middle level managers include regular review meetings, meetings to fix the targets and review performance against the targets, to transmit information on vital matters, issues related to planning and performance management, and help in case of issues, challenges, and problems.
In short, there is a lack of awareness exists about the tasks of the middle level managers. They belong to quite an invisible layer. Neither the operating personnel nor the senior management is really fully aware of the work done by the middle level managers and the requirements needed for a successful middle level manager.
Self-perception of middle manager
Middle level managers see their career opportunities for getting promoted to senior management levels. Their present position allows them to gain experience in the field of leadership as well as active contribution to the success of the department. They already have the possibility to take decisions, to work on their leadership style, to encourage people, and to still pursue their own career, i.e. the promotion to the senior management position. It is obvious, that they are conscious of the importance the middle management role contains, as they only make progress, when they do a good job. They are aware of the influence such a position can have and how exhausting and challenging work can be.
Several of the middle level managers are satisfied with their position since they consider their position as powerful position which can help them in gaining experience in several different aspects of work. For them, the position is not a milestone on their career pathway, but it is their career goal. They play the role of some kind of intermediary and sometime also mediator for implementing the policies and plans of senior management and motivating the related people which the senior management cannot achieve without their support. Hence, obviously it is the position with a lot of responsibility and provides opportunity to communicate with all kind of characters, to listen to all kind of problems and to always have an aim to achieve the implementation of the policies and plans within the department.
Communication methods of the middle level managers have evolved over time. In the present day environment, information and communication needs to be accurate, short and provided in a short time frame. Further, middle level managers are to develop empathy to ensure that team members do not suffer from their stressful environment.
With time, not only the tasks but also the qualification of the middle level managers has changed. In the past, the cognitive skill and the ‘normal’ intelligence were the most important skill for a good middle level manager. But now the communication, interaction and behaviour with the people and colleagues along with dedication and hard work in combination with soft skills are frequently more important. Also, information flow has become an irresistible factor for success.
In a study done on the time being spent by the middle level managers, it has been noticed that 63.5 % of the time is spent by them on decision making, planning and coordination, and controlling / supervision (Fig 3).
Fig 3 Time spent on various tasks by middle level managers.
For efficient fulfillment of their tasks, intangibles like emotional and social intelligence have become important for the middle level managers to prevail in the present day environment. The intangibles have high relevance for the organizations to achieve the missions, goals and policies. It is no longer a question of giving an order and watching its execution, but those emotional and social skills permit a new way of delegation of emotional and social coordination within a team. Middle level managers having these skills plays the role of being part of the operating personnel and bring forth their issues with the senior management.
Middle level managers need to have skills to bring out the hidden knowledge of the employees by motivating them. This is since employees do not share their knowledge if they are ordered for it. The exchange of knowledge within the team is an important aspect of the responsibility of the middle level manager.
Middle level managers are to given their due importance and attention for the contribution they are making for various operations which are regularly performed for successful running of the organization.
Role of middle level manager
Personal requirements – The middle level managers need to have expertise knowledge in their field of activity for them to understand specific processes. In their capability as contact person, they can neither afford to lack an overall knowledge of what kind of work is being done within their sphere by the operating personnel, nor the vision the senior management. As a result of the various responsibilities of middle level managers which are much higher than the ones of the operating personnel and sometimes even more diversified than the ones of the senior management, they need professional handling with the resource time, the ability to get employees developed so that they can work autonomously ,and establishment of the objectives oriented requirements.
Further, middle level managers not only lead the operating personnel under them but need to have a regular exchange with the senior management as well. They are not only to do things correctly, but to do the correct things, meaning to take the appropriate measures to achieve their aim with efficiency and effectiveness. Such requirements can only be fulfilled by the middle level managers if they possess distinct self-confidence, self-image and self-control (three pillars). They are to focus on the work-related issues with sufficient energy for controlling the employees. Further, they are to have the ability to understand the complex and abstract concepts and to link these to envisaged processes. Also, it is necessary that they are able to break down such complex concepts into partial strategies which can be implemented in small lots. Fig 4 describes the three pillars for the success of the middle level managers.
Fig 4 Three pillars for the success of the middle level managers
The middle level managers are to be able to honestly communicate both with the employees from the operating personnel and the senior management about the development, feedback on special files, recognition, solution approaches, conflicts or motivation. For this they are to be responsible, credible, and have natural authority. This is also necessary if their career objective is to get promoted to the senior management one day.
Qualifications and leadership requirements – The leadership quality is indispensable for leading the people. Leaders motivate and stimulate people through their natural charisma, empathy and integrity. As it is a context related ability, not every leader is the right person at the right time for every challenge and / or an environment, but leaders have the ability of accessing to the key components and creating benefits. This seamlessly interrelates to the role of middle level managers. While they still work as experts in their areas of expertise, leadership skills are one of the utmost skills which ensure success at work for them.
Even though several studies indicate that leadership in general is inherent, one cannot disregard the numerous external factors like level of education, social background, integration and identification with the organization, but also communication, management, and time management techniques and skills which play significant roles. Some skills need to be learned, others to be experienced, and hence, the term leadership includes in fact inherent and learnable aspects.
The term leadership is not to be mixed with the term management, as the tasks and functions of leaders and managers need to be analyzed separately. Frequently both terms are used synonymously, but are to be considered as two separate important categories. In case of the role of the middle level managers, both the terms are important.
Further, the middle level managers are not only to be aware of effective forces within the market, the organization, the department, but also understand their importance. Hence, leadership is absolutely one of the most important intangible skills for middle level managers. Besides emotional and social intelligence, it constitutes an immediate asset in view of the tasks and responsibilities. Without leadership skills, it is not possible for the middle level managers to act as successful connection between the senior management and the operating personnel.
Emotional and social intelligence – Emotional and / or social intelligence is indispensable requirement in the context of the role of middle level managers. Emotional intelligence can be described as the ability to influence the quality of soft skills by influencing directly characteristics like empathy, the knowledge of human nature, and judgment. It mainly consists of empathy, sensitivity, self-control, self-confidence and communication skills. It is a decisive criterion for the success of the organization.
Soft skills like emotional and social intelligence are the most important requirements for a successful middle level manager. These soft skills are keys on the one hand to manage a team and motivate and engage them on a daily basis, on the other hand to deal with the senior management to whom middle level managers are reporting. Social intelligence is a differentiator and winning factor.
Emotional intelligence is absolutely necessary to externalize the knowledge which is in the minds of the employees. By using the emotional intelligence skills, it is possible to figure out what is going on in the minds of employees. Ideas and knowledge can be visualized so that the organization can profit from these invisible assets. However, this area being a very critical one, one cannot disregard to tolerate and to respect the opinions and beliefs of others. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that a certain self-reflection and a critical analysis with one’s own values and attitudes is indispensable.
It is essential for the middle level managers, to possess the skills of emotional and social intelligence. In light of the collaboration which needs to take place on different hierarchical levels, the middle level managers absolutely have to change and to juggle with their behaviour, their mode of expression, their presentation, and their way of communication. Capabilities and knowledge in general are to be seen as intangibles, which become more and more important, because of the continuous digitalization and virtualization. Hence, the middle level managers with the best possible quality in technical fields are also to have the quality of emotional intelligence.
The use of emotional intelligence can also help middle managers to solve complex problems within the organization, since it allows a different view on the situation as by only rational thinking. In general, the emotional intelligence can have an impact on the success of the organization, as far as it and rational thinking are being used equally while taking decisions and evaluating situations and people.
Influence of organizational culture – Within an organization, there are beliefs and behaviours which define the interaction between the senior management, the middle management and the operating personnel. It also describes how to act and handle matters outside the organization. The organizational culture is reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, recruitment decisions, customers’ treatment, customer satisfaction, and every other aspect of its operations.
Hence, it is clear that the organizational culture influences the work of the middle level managers. Instructions for the operating personnel, strategies which need to be implemented and trainings need to be in line with what are the expectations of the senior management. One more task for the middle level managers, as they are obliged to adapt their communications and to ensure, that the organizational image is protected both inside and outside the organization.
Organizational culture is not to be seen as an instrument, but it constitutes the environment in which people work. Without a doubt, the environment is an important factor which influences the work which include work of senior management, middle level managers, and also the work of the operating personnel.
Real value of the middle level managers
Middle level managers are the engine of the operations in the organization, the mechanism which makes things work, and the adhesive which keeps the organization together. Especially as remote and hybrid work takes over and the distance between employees increases, then the middle level managers are more important than ever. The most effective ones are in possession of humane, sophisticated communications skills and the knack to mediate and find common grounds between people at different levels in the organization.
In fact, the division between leadership and management increasingly sounds out of date, and even obsolete. It is time to reunite leadership and management in one concept, and recognize middle level managers as connecting leaders. This concept recognizes that every leader is also a follower, and every follower is also a leader. Hence, a manager in the middle of hierarchical layers builds relationships with those at the senior (from a position of followership and lower power) and with the people at the bottom (from a position of leadership and higher power).
This type of role of the middle level manager is challenging, however, since it needs being both a proactive leader to direct reports and an engaged follower to the senior management, all at the same time. Present ideas of leadership and training fail to capture this complex double act. For example, executive development programmes focus on teaching leadership skills so managers can influence direct reports, largely ignoring the development of their upward influence skills. But it is directly through these double upward and downward influence activities that connecting leaders can shrink hierarchical distance and bring multiple levels of an organization together.
There are four sets of practices which are keys to creating successful connecting leaders. They are shown in Tab 1 below, which outline both important practices and also potential risks the organization and the connecting leaders are to be aware of as they are to play in these roles.
|Tab 1 Types of connecting leaders and practices|
|Connecting leader||Practice||Main risk||Mitigator|
|Janus||Empathizing with both sides||Burnout and emotional labour||Coaching and psychological support|
|Broker||Negotiating with both sides to bring them together||Senior colleagues’ lack of availability||Embracing a culture of transparency and humility|
|Conduit||Speaking up for others||Exposing oneself personally to the top||Fostering a culture of psychological safety|
|Tight rope walker||Critical thinking and appraising both sides of dilemmas||Cognitive overload, confusion, and being slow to action||Encouraging safe critical-thinking spaces for peer discussions|
The connecting leader as Janus (a Roman god) – Janus is a Roman god who is identified with doors, gates, and all beginnings and which is depicted with two opposite faces. This means engaging essentially with the concerns of both upward and downward partners in an organization. This ability to look simultaneously up and down the hierarchy, in two directions, allows connecting leaders to empathize with the burden of both sides and spread the weight of shared issues.
Middle level managers with the qualities of Janus do not exude the charisma of a ‘heroic’ leader’ but they are quietly to be self-confident, soft spoken, and very approachable. In the emergency situations, they succeed by keeping this active double gaze, first on their employees. They need to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. The remoteness makes it easy for people to hide, and shy away. But then again, anyone has got different circumstances, so they have to be more flexible around this. One is required to check in more regularly, and to reassure the people. They are also to keep a watch towards the senior management, by ensuring they are in the loop. By increasing the sharing of information, they flatten the hierarchical distance between themselves, their senior management, and their team.
Middle level managers with the qualities of Janus increase the frequency during emergency situations which they hold for regular catch ups with the senior management. This ensures that they and the senior management both are at the same frequency, on the same page, and have the same temperature check while getting the raw message. This helps them to respond quickly to concerns from the bottom.
Through the double gaze, middle level managers show that key to be a successful manager is not enough to be just an effective leader by cherishing relationships with one own’s reports from a position of higher authority, but also that it is essential to be an engaged follower by involving and influencing the senior management from a position of lower authority.
The greatest risk for the middle level managers with qualities of Janus is burnout and emotional labour. Because these managers are consistently empathizing with many different people at different levels of the organization, it is important that they guard their energy and shares the burdens with both sides. Organizations can mitigate this risk by offering coaching and psychological support for these managers to discuss, become aware, and overcome this cognitive and emotional burden.
The connecting leader as a broker – A broker creates a dialogue between people who have conflicting agendas. Because hierarchical levels have frequently different goals and needs, connecting leaders can serve as interpreters and translators of these needs, brokering inter-level dialogue between the people above and below them.
The middle level managers are to play the role of a broker between the senior management and the operational personnel in several situations where decision making is not in their hand and they are required to follow the decisions taken at the senior management level. The role of broker is necessary to combat the negative impact of these decisions on the motivation of some of the employees under them. Such situations very often build fruitful relationship of operational level employees with the senior management, thus increasing their motivation and loyalty for the organization.
The greatest risk for the middle level managers or any leader-as-broker is an uncooperative or unavailable senior management executive, or one who is challenging to win over. It is also possible that, in attempting to bridge different parts of the organizational hierarchy, misunderstandings can occur. To address this, senior management can foster a culture of transparency and humility, where the senior level executives accept an open-door engagement with lower parts of the organization and embraces problems with a sense of understanding.
The connecting leader as a conduit – Conduits courageously amplify the voices of their direct reports upwards. In several cases, there are constructive challenges to those in positions of power which can both trickle up in a mediated way or also be directly communicated from the bottom to the senior management.
For the middle level managers who act as conduit get operational personnel directly involved in contributing their views since, at the end of the day, they are required to buy the change. Such middle level managers are to take courage in two ways. First, they are to admit they are not always ‘the smartest person in the group’ as they need to forefront their reportees’ voices to persuade the senior management. Second, they amplify challenging points, which can at odds with the senior management’s agenda. In other words, they exposed themselves personally for others to be heard. Different studies indicate that in order to speak up, organizations need to foster a culture of psychological safety. This type of culture is important for connecting leaders, who frequently have to speak up on behalf of others or encourage their employees to speak up themselves.
The connecting leader as a tight rope walker – The practice of a tight rope walker needs critically appraising and balancing dilemmas. The different, even opposite, needs and demand from upper and lower levels place the connecting leader in front of a countless of predicaments each day.
This can be explained by taking an example of designing redundancy schemes while simultaneously keeping the people on a team motivated, or applying mechanisms of performance control while ensuring that people have enough autonomy and drive in their position. In these situations, connecting leaders run the risk to be cognitively overwhelmed and paralyzed. They can overcome this by critically thinking through the different sides of impasses strategically and balancing them carefully.
Middle level managers are required to have skills needed in the constant balancing act by connecting leaders, walking along a rope between hierarchical layers. There are risks to this, though, including cognitive overload, confusion, and slow action. It is important these risks are mitigated by offering safe critically thinking spaces for debate amongst middle level managers, where push backs to top policies can be discussed with peers. This is especially important at times in which the organization asks the most of them, like larger scale strategic changes which need redundancies or restructuring.
Roles of middle level managers during organizational change
The middle level managers are essential during organizational change. They are close to the employees and hence have a big influence in successfully implementing the change. Middle level managers take on five important roles during a change namely (i) communicators, (ii) supporters, (iii) trainers, (iv) mediators, and (v) managers of resistance. Another important aspect which the middle level managers are to implement during change is a sense making role.
First, as a communicator, the middle level managers are the person to which the employees go to in order to get answers on their questions. Because of the changes, a number of questions arise, and employees need answers to these questions. Besides, information of the change has to be spread around the organization. This information can be transmitted by the middle level managers.
Second, the middle level managers as a supporter are a role model within the change. Employees are going to look to what extent they supports the change. When they do not support the change or behaves in a passive way, employees are likely to copy their behaviour. Hence, it is important for the senior management to make the middle level managers the biggest supporter of the change.
Third, middle level managers are trainers, since they have one to one contact with their employees. This way, they can guide the employees on an individual level and help each employee to overcome the barriers during the change.
The fourth role of the middle level manager is a mediator. The key to a successful implementation of change is the interaction between the senior management and the middle level managers to discuss the needs in the organization. Middle level managers have most of the times more information about the real issues in the organization and have information on the opinion of employees on certain topics.
The fifth role of the middle level managers is an important role in overcoming resistance to change, since they are closest to employees who are possibly resisting the change. Hence, they are in the best position to identify resistance and the reasons for this resistance. As a consequence, they are also in the best position to manage the change.