Poorly Trained Middle Managers are Killing Your Company Culture
A lack of investment in the folks leading the majority of your organizations' employees is driving turnover and negatively impacting your workplace culture.
The leaders working in the middle of your organization have one of the most challenging roles and responsibilities, making it most concerning to know that many organizations offer little or no training on even the most fundamental of people leadership practices. Considering how much of your workforce, including the incredibly important frontlines, work for those middle managers, it's unsurprising that their lack of leadership knowledge and practice drives many employees to seek employment elsewhere. Over time middle managers have been given a bad rap. As McKinsey notes in their interesting look at the Vanishing Middle Manager, the era of COVID-19 has not been kind to this cohort, seeing it eliminated or downsized in many organizations . Perhaps if more senior leaders had invested time genuinely trying to understand the critical importance of these roles and then invested in their development, a large portion of the ongoing great resignation could have been stalled, and a vast pipeline of internal talent would have become visible.
Middle managers have several critical functions in the organization, none more important than that of a connector. They need to work hard to please two very different stakeholder groups as they are both the leader of their teams and a follower of their leader above them. In a nutshell, this means that they need to diplomatically feed their teams' concerns up to the senior leaders in the organization while bringing the feedback and direction from those senior leaders back down into the trenches in a way that isn’t soul-crushing to the people doing the frontline work. These are tricky skills to master, especially if you haven’t had formal training in your role or an accurate job description that outlines this specific purpose. Learning to look up and down the organization while being empathetic to both groups' needs is important. I’ve seen many middle managers go wrong here, working too hard to please the top of the hierarchy while barking down orders at those in the trenches. Not only does this not create a positive working environment, but it does little to build awareness and consensus around shared problems and goals.
Being a skilled liaison is a critical function of being a middle manager. A good liaison can masterfully create healthy conversations amongst people at different levels of the organization who often hold very different views and have different timelines and priorities. Because this is often the case in hierarchical organizations, you can appreciate this skill set's importance. Middle managers who are great liaisons can act as a translator between the two levels of the organization when it comes to helping them understand both groups’ goals, problems, and needs. Without awareness of how each group is experiencing day-to-day life, it becomes almost impossible to identify gaps and work to fix them. It can also become tricky to work on the needs of the business, such as the strength of your training and development programs if your senior leaders aren’t aware of their frontline team members' desire to grow or their potential need for additional training and skill development.
Perhaps the most critical area of the middle managers’ responsibility within the organization is to be a conduit between the frontline team members and those who work hard above them in the organization's hierarchy to create the systems and tools used to deliver a product or service to your customers. These frontline folks are whom I like to call ‘closest to the fire,’ and without them, your business wouldn’t come to life. Staying close to these folks and how they are experiencing the company is critical. They will often know long before others in the organization that there is a problem with the products or tools and how it impacts, directly or indirectly, your customers. But often, senior leaders are so far removed from those on the frontlines that they rely solely on what the middle managers tell them or don’t about the situation. A precarious proposition.
If you want to build a bench of strong, capable middle managers, consider those who are working on your organization's frontlines. They could make excellent candidates for your talent pipeline for these roles and many others. Stop and consider for a moment the value that someone who talks to your customers all day, every day, could have within different departments in your company. What impact could they have on the research and development process for new products and services for your customers? Or consider the knowledge and experience they could bring to the team that deals with customer satisfaction issues. It's worth the effort to find creative ways to cross-pollinate the knowledge within your frontline teams throughout different departments and levels of the organization.
One of the main reasons people leave your organization is directly related to issues with their manager. A Gallup study found that while 89% of employers believed that their team members were leaving their company for more money, that was, in fact, accurate only 12% of the time. That same study showed that employees resigned 75% of the time because of issues with their managers . Topping the list of their complaints?
A lack of direct communication with their manager, specifically feedback.
A lack of vision creating a feeling of being disconnected from the organization's purpose.
Being micro-managed and a complete lack of encouragement
A lack of confidence in their managers' ability to lead them and the team to success.
A lack of empathy and a general sense their manager does not care about them or their career.
Consider these stats again and think about how many people at your company work for the middle managers. Whether it's about appreciation, respect, dignity, or overall leadership skills, continually failing to invest in their training and development could spell turnover trouble, especially during this time of unprecedented resignations.
Let me put it another way. Suppose you invest zero time in training your middle managers to be collaborative, supportive conduits of information who can liaise with ease both upward and downwards in the organization. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised when your talented team members jump ship. Combine this with the knowledge gap that exists among senior leaders when it comes to what is happening on the frontlines, and things have become tremendously risky. Making strategic decisions about the organization's future, both in products and people, is challenging enough; factor in a lack of clarity surrounding what is happening in the middle and at the frontlines of the organization, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Hancock, Brian, Schaninger, Bill. “The Vanishing Middle Manager.” McKinsey & Company, 5 Feb. 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-vanishing-middle-manager
Hogan, Maren. “Top 5 Reasons Why People Quit Bosses, Not Their Jobs”. LinkedIn, 11 Mar. 2015, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/top-5-reasons-why-people-quit-bosses-jobs-maren-hogan/