There is so much written about the role and value of middle management, those running teams of up to 15 people. Over the years they have received a lot of criticism, but in reality, middle managers are absolutely vital in translating the needs and wants of the C-suite into actionable plans that can be delivered by employees that make up a business’ various teams.
Despite this, evolution to business structures has only continued to add fuel to the fire of questions about the value of middle managers' role. Traditional corporate hierarchies have become flatter, 'smarter' and more efficient. Technologies have replaced manual and mundane tasks, and communication from the top -> bottom and from the bottom -> top is more open than ever. But this evolution has one profound casualty, one which I believe will scupper businesses in the near future. Middle management.
"The ranks of middle management have been under a 25-30-year assault" Bill Schneider, Senior Partner | McKinsey
I think this is a critical mistake, I believe in the role of the middle manager and the unique value they add. The middle manager is the lynchpin between the c-suite and wider employees. With the right people skills they can lead, influence, empathise and problem solve - leading to a wide range of improved metrics. In this short article I am going to reflect on why middle managers have declined, and why, with the right support middle managers could return for the benefit of all.
What Has Led to the Decline in Middle Managers' Role?There are two reasons that middle managers are on the decline:
- Poor promotion
EconomisationFor decades leading up to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the middle manager was a species under threat. From state leaders to business directors, hankerings for greater efficiency, speed and value for money was the mantra of the 80s-90s. The common enemy was bureaucratic bloating and its executioner was a raft of new technologies.
One of economisation's first victims was the middle-manager, those balance sheet burdens that neither generate the revenue or the big ideas. In the view of the 'progressives', anything or anyone to whom value add cannot be aligned is an unnecessary expense.
We saw this expunging of middle management increase following the DotCom boom, Global Financial Crisis and of course the pandemic as encominisers reacted to unexpected budgetary constraints. Further justification for the expunging of middle management came early on in the pandemic, when small teams of leaders aided with new technologies were able to affect enormous change on disparate workforces in record time.
So, what is the point of middle management when senior leaders can circumvent the 'bottle neck'?
Poor PromotionMy second reason is poor promotion, i.e. who becomes managers. More often than not, a middle manager is an internal hire and someone worthy of reward. And this is where it all goes wrong. Treating management as a reward for services rendered. The reason for this is simple, one can be highly proficient in their profession but lack all the necessary people skills to be an effective manager.
We have all experienced crappy managers, those who didn't have time for us, explain expectations or give us support and recognition when we really needed it.
"79 percent of people who quit their jobs cite ‘lack of appreciation’ as their reason for leaving." Performance Accelerated 'A 10 Year, 200,000 person study'. O.C. Tanner Learning Group
Building a middle management layer that lacks people skills is evidentially correlated to low employee engagement, lack of productivity and high voluntary turnover. This 'problem' has justified the removal of middle managers, but in reality, this is just another knee jerk reaction to a problem created by a poor solution.
Why is this such a bad idea?
Middle managers intersect the realms between c-suite direction and employee action, the system and the people. They translate goals and objectives into actionable tasks and work with their teams to deliver desired outcomes. The best of them are coaches.
Those that they manage have evolved as well. The early pandemic recognised the emergence of another actor, the activist employee. Driven by the need for social change, environmental concerns, obvious workplace inequalities and the commercial dealings of their employer. This morally driven community transcends countries and corporate sectors. They are powerful, they are right and they are very human. And this last part is the most important.
The c-suite want an approach, that with a little margin for error achieves the objectives their shareholders have approved. Architecting a system, that utilises all available technologies and data-driven/statistical models. But this habitual reaction has had insalubrious consequences that I think we will all be able to relate to. By treating businesses or any organisations as systems, we miss the human influence. So these systems have an obvious drawback, they fully or even partially obviate the human. At a time when humanism is rising amongst global workforces, this poses a challenge to corporates who fail to mollify them with a layer of people skilled managers.
How can you train managers?
Training implies the sharing of specific knowledge, you can train someone to fly a plane or create an excel formula, but not to empathise, lead and influence.
These traits can only be learnt through experience. The conundrum businesses have, is that the obvious environments for people to experience and learn these skills are rapidly diminishing in line with the increased spending on software and technology solutions. Simply, because the tasks that the software is replacing - mundane, transactional, low-risk etc are precisely the ones that offered would be managers the opportunities to problem-solve, analyse, collaborate and make decisions on.
With businesses spending more and more of their operating costs on technology (the top banks now spend more as a percentage each year than Amazon) the learning experiences that lead to better middle managers are unlikely to return. Instead, businesses need to revert to other means - which of course is what Ethical Angel, the company I founded in 2018 is for.
Ethical Angel transforms the needs of society into valuable experiences for people to practice those critical human, power skill:
The results of when businesses have used Ethical Angel are powerful. PepsiCo recorded 100% of users improving their skills, most notably seeing improvements across leadership and influence. How, you ask? Well, I would encourage you to read the full report on our work with PepsiCo, as I believe it is truly the beginnings of an L&D revolution. But in short, we did it by completely flipping training to focus on relationships and lived experiences, instead of theory and wrote knowledge.
You can read the full report here:
Middle management is the future, perhaps not for the reason they were so important in the past but as a new force intersecting systems and humans to achieve the best results for all. This won’t happen naturally though. They need an opportunity to learn the skills that will define their outcomes, they need experiences to practice power skills.
Ethical Angel can help: