The term “middle management” evokes a host of responses, many of them negative. Many, like Meta Chief Mark Zuckerberg, see middle managers as low-hanging fruit in the quest to “flatten” their organizational structure to promote productivity. But not everyone feels that way.
Middle managers — those who both supervise employees and report to upper management — play an important role in companies, said James Reid, a partner in the employment department at Honigman LLP, with offices in Michigan, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“Middle management is the eyes and ears of the organization,” Reid said. “It’s boots on the ground as opposed to the ivory tower.”
Middle managers wear many hats. They run day-to-day operations, communicate company updates, set team goals, manage employees’ professional development and performance feedback, hire and fire team members, and often manage budgets. What’s more, they’re asked to be both engaged followers of upper management and effective team leaders. In short, they’re caught in the middle.
Most middle managers gain their status because they’ve already been effective workers for the organization. It’s called “quiet hiring,” said Reid — promoting “rock stars” up the ranks.
These types of promotions can cause several issues. First, these workers likely have little to no leadership training. “A lot of companies don’t train their middle managers like they do the C-suite,” Reid said.
Second, these overnight managers are often caught between gossiping with coworkers about the boss and being part of the leadership team, Reid explained, noting that they may have never intended to manage people but were “forced into it” as part of their promotion.
Elizabeth Williams, principal in HR solutions at Rehmann, agreed: “More often than not, middle managers may know the technical aspects of their job, but the people aspect is missing.”
The power of middle managers
A good middle management team can improve a company’s productivity and profitability, and a bad or poorly trained one can do a good deal of damage. While the executive team focuses on the big picture — vision, mission, goals — middle managers are tasked with disseminating the vision, motivating the workforce and acting as a conduit between executives and employees.
Investing in and empowering middle managers “is critical” for companies, said Williams. “They’re the ones who have the most influence on their workers. They are the primary motivation for the employee.”
Williams enumerated key training that’s often missing for middle managers: interviewing skills, how to leverage human resources, how to coach and motivate employees, how to address performance issues and terminations, and how to mitigate the company’s legal risks.
“Anyone can sue anyone for any reason,” said Williams, who cited the example of firing an employee without documented cause. “If there’s a 51% likeliness that there’s a discrimination issue, they’re going to approve the claim.”
Reid, who provides leadership training for companies, said unconscious bias training is also important for middle managers. For example, he said, most people don’t know that height, weight, marital status and family status are protected in Michigan, so decisions based on those traits could expose the company to liability.
“People don’t leave jobs; they leave managers,” said Williams, who called managers the “glue” that makes employees stay with companies. In other words, ill-equipped middle managers lead to high turnover rates.
Not investing in middle management costs companies more in the long run than training them, said Reid. “Either they leave, or they stay and cause their direct reports to leave.”
Williams noted that people have 17 jobs in a lifetime these days and that the pandemic seems to have empowered people to leave bad situations. “People have a lesser tolerance for toxicity.”
Williams also cited a Gallup survey indicating that 75% of turnover is preventable and that 69% of employees would stay in their positions if things changed. Much of the power to change situations lies with empowered middle management, she said.
Companies can mitigate training costs by taking advantage of “train the trainer” sessions that enable C-suite leaders to conduct in-house training for middle managers, said Reid.
Another cost-saving measure, Reid said, is to record leadership training sessions so new managers can quickly get up-to-speed.
“It only takes one lawsuit or one employee turnover to make (training) economically viable,” Reid said.
Companies should also document the date and type of leadership training provided to each manager he said. “The first question in any investigation is going to be ‘what training did middle management have?’” Organizations that don’t have documented training can be held liable for any missteps, he said.
Key pieces in Reid’s leadership training include “I” messages and the seven Ws. Leaders should create healthy conflict by using “I” statements like “I feel we can do better” instead of “you” statements like “you need to improve,” he said. “Nobody wants to get the finger. Start with the thumb. It eliminates defensive mode.”
The 7 Ws include who, what, where, when, why, how, witness and want. These are key pieces of information managers should obtain from employees when they bring concerns to them. “Stick to the facts,” he said, rather than subjective statements like, “he’s a jerk.” Gather factual information, including any witnesses and what the employee wants out of the situation.
Middle managers should also understand that their work relationships have changed,” Reid said. They now need to act like part of the management team, and that may mean not going to lunch with a few co-workers, which could be perceived as favoritism. It also means no longer being simply an “empathic ear” for employees, but instead a vehicle for change.
Beyond being under-trained and often under-valued, middle managers face new challenges in today’s workforce, said Reid. First, employees are more entitled than ever and more likely to leverage their power in today’s market. Second, many companies are making efforts toward diversity, which means middle managers need to employ different techniques to reach different types of people.
These challenges provide even more reasons to invest in middle management and ensure they’re equipped with leadership skills, he said.