Middle Managers are unloved, under skilled and often not wanted

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Middle Managers are a road block to productivity, according to findings released last week from a survey conducted among almost 2,000 business people, by the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) with involvement from Monash University. However, the problem is Middle Managers believe they do not receive crucial support and training needed to do their job.

The findings indicated that while their technical skills are high, middle managers are underperforming on the people management, particularly at the supervisor/team leader level, communication, leadership, strategic influence and change management dimensions.

On the flipside, the majority of Middle Managers feel their organisations fall short on delivering on commitments made to them, setting clear career paths and developing their leadership and management capabilities.

Working with Senior Leaders and Middle Managers every day, we get to see both sides of this coin. For us the key question is “what role do both groups play in creating this situation?”. From our perspective both groups certainly play a role and have shared responsibility.

Notwithstanding we have the opportunity to work with outstanding leaders and managers: here is some of what we more commonly observe of senior leaders:

  • Poor communication of long term direction, strategic goals and focus;
  • Failure to emphasise Values and set clear expectations of behaviour and standards;
  • Not engaging middle management in contributing to shaping future plans for the organisation;
  • Lack of trust – pulling decisions up rather than empowering managers to make decisions and learn from them;
  • Bounds of authority are blurred;
  • Too busy to devote time to coaching and mentoring.  Less than 20% of leaders we work with have time blocked out on a regular basis for this purpose;
  •  Performance Appraisals seen as a “chore” not an investment of time for which there must be a return.

Here is some of what we regularly observe when working with Middle Managers:

  • Lack of willingness to take personal responsibility for their own growth and development;
  • Wariness and distrust of senior management motives;
  • Unwilling to challenge senior management;
  • React rather than initiate;
  • Poor problem solving and decision making ability;
  • Limited ability to think critically about situations;
  • Limited communication, particularly around shared learning;
  • Unwilling to challenge the “status quo”.

Both groups are poor at goal setting.  Most goals we see are not goals at all, they are intentions. Both are limited in their ability to set and hold others to account for achievement of required outcomes.

This situation plays out culturally with lower achievement/productivity, lower motivation and satisfaction, increased frustration on the part of senior leaders and increased avoidance on the part of middle managers ultimately resulting in a loss of quality and productivity for the organisation.

This situation is serious as middle management is the conduit through which so many critical organisational initiatives pass and where success or failure is determined.

The findings of this survey suggest there needs to be a comprehensive assessment of the skill sets of both groups.  A mind set change is needed in the way senior and middle managers connect and communicate with each other.

Sustained investment is required to develop critical leadership and management skills for both groups, particularly those that relate to people leadership and management.    We need to assist Middle Managers increase their self-awareness, know how they are rated, understand their strengths and know their areas of improvement.  More than that, organisations need to place greater emphasis on fair and honest appraisals ensuring that there are comprehensive development plans in place for leaders at all levels, not just middle managers.   Middle Managers need to ‘earn the right’ by willingly contributing to shaping the organisation and achievement of outcomes. Finally, selection and recruitment of Middle Managers needs to be based on the ability to lead and manage people, not just on technical “know-how”.

To quote Tony Gleeson, one of the Report’s authors “There are 500 000 reasons why Australia needs to solve the performance problems of the nation’s middle managers. That’s the number of middle managers there are in Australia”.  Click on the link to see the full Survey Findings http://www.aim.com.au/research/AIM_MiddleManagementSurveyReport.pdf