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Harnessing the power of the lost middle : top 10 insights


1. [Middle] management is dead

We are already seeing radical shifts in the nature of work. The traditional organisation of work around job roles is shifting to more fluid task based resourcing and automation of traditional management roles of forecasting, modelling and planning means they are becoming increasingly obsolete. The writing is on the wall for management as a discipline, meaning our people need leadership skills, learning agility, the ability to work with ambiguity and skilled collaboration.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…middle management still exists and is a topic that we as leaders need to engage with.

2. People not permafrost

It’s become fashionable to demonise the middle, oversimplifying the complex issues and challenges the group face and the significant role they play. This is a group comprised of very different people filling very distinctive roles, who need to be engaged with and listened to.

3. The frontline of complexity

Whilst the optimists among us imagine a future when robots are doing the repetitive, complicated work of running and improving our business process and systems… today middle management are at the intersection of complex legacy and failing processes. Waves of inconsistent investment in innovation and the need to make sense of constant regulatory changes means those in the middle still have a vital role to play. Too few change efforts start with empathy and consider how much change these people have to deal with on a daily basis (considering change in aggregate not just ‘my change programme’).

4. Cognitive load bearing

Research shows that being in the middle is more stressful than any other layer of the business. Constantly switching from followership to leadership, puts a punishing cognitive load on those working in the middle. Often they don’t have any real power to make decisions or understand why the decisions that have been made were taken. They are then held to account by the frontline who are unclear on the role they play, and the issues that management are creating.

5. Learnt helplessness

This is compounded by a lack of clarity most middle managers report having around their own objectives – meaning they are forced to constantly make trade-offs between competing strategic, operational and human priorities without fully understanding what their own leaders really want. This lack of clarity and autonomy, as well as the random acts of approbation that result force stressed managers into a state of learnt helplessness. As a result, corporate survival can become the focus rather than driving business performance.

6. Are the top owning their 50%?

We all know the famous Jack Welch quote – “Managing for the short term or long term is easy. It’s managing for both that’s the real challenge.” As the rate of change no longer affords us to oscillate between periods of efficiency or growth, short term or long term… the conflicting demands on the middle heighten. The middle need to hold their leaders to account… how clear are they on priorities, how creative are they being in finding ways to resolve these conflicting tensions, are they successfully managing their own stakeholders to create the headspace and time needed to deliver the strategy?

7. Innovation happens in the middle

While those in the middle are often deemed a barrier to change, most insight and ideas about how to improve the business sit in the middle layers – but getting stuff to happen in the middle is hard. If senior leaders can give the air cover needed to take risks and experiment, then creativity and progress become inevitable.

8. Both ends of the adoption curve

Recent studies have shone a light on the bias towards men, extraverts etc. However, another modern bias is the focus on innovators and early adopters as the foundations for next generation leaders. Judging the balance between resistance to change and overreactivity is critical if businesses want to move at pace and with focus. Those who are inclined towards a more ‘steward like’ mode of management, often get overlooked or tarred as cynical. Businesses need a better dialogue between those who want to jump first, and those that need more convincing – without demonising the other.

9. Give me a MAP - Mastery. Autonomy. Purpose.

As work gets increasingly fluid and the future increasingly ambiguous, it’s more important than ever for leaders to create environments that allow their people to thrive. How do I find meaning in my work, is it clear where I have the space to create, make decisions and mistakes, do I have what I need to excel in what I am doing? Investment in development is nearly always focussed on the top, and a smaller sub set of high potentials (who will likely not be in the middle for long)… it is imperative to find ways to develop these middle layers effectively too.

10. Finding the unicorns

Most of us have worked with brilliant people who aren’t great team players. Sometimes there are people in organisations who create huge value but at a big cost to unity and culture. As leaders defaulting to managing them out is the wrong answer, but just tolerating them is toxic. Leaders need to face into the challenge of embedding match winners in the team.