Future of Work

To fix workplace culture, fix middle management. Here’s how

As corporate business models evolved from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Economy, the fundamental role of middle management has shifted.

As corporate business models evolved from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Economy, the fundamental role of middle management has shifted. Image: UNSPLASH/Mimi Thian

Andrea Belk Olson
CEO, Pragmadik
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Future of Work

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  • The fundamental role of middle management has shifted, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of work entirely.
  • The most logical role for middle management is to serve as the vital cog in the creating of a positive organizational culture by empowering staff and aligning them to the long-term vision of the business.
  • Instead of relegating middle management to the outdated role of literal “middleman”, they can serve as an essential part of the organization by breaking down internal barriers to growth and productivity.

Middle management came about to ensure information and projects flowed effectively between the rank-and-file and the high-level executives, with making certain that money was being made all along the process. As corporate business models evolved from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Economy, the fundamental role of middle management has shifted. If you ran a small business 20 years ago, a lot of customer and business information was captured by hand and stored in filing cabinets.

Have you read?

Middle management was critical to keep information flowing and providing insight across the organization on what was happening. Yet technology, including CRMs, started changing the business landscape. Information to manage the entire business can be seen and accessed across the organization while you’re getting coffee. Middle management now struggles to remain relevant.

A changing role - and need for support

Most organizations are top-down hierarchies in terms of decision-making. The smarter, better companies are utilizing a modern team decision-making methodology. In those situations, teams are empowered to make decisions at a certain level, speeding up decision-making. Information doesn’t have to float up — which was previously often the role of middle management — and then wait for a decision to come back down.

Compounding these issues, middle managers are the only people in a company who must manage both up (to executives) and down (to direct reports), It’s taxing, and that’s a big reason why engagement numbers are so low. According to Vantage Circle, 18% of middle managers are subject to chronic depressions. Almost 50% take their work home or work overtime. It’s critical we re-examine the role of middle management and redesign it to serve an even bigger, more important purpose.

Managing energy, not tasks alone

Effective leadership is about soft skills. Leadership and management are not about hitting goals as much as they’re about managing the energy of other people and making sure they’re understanding their goals and how to reach them. Yet, Gallup has found that companies fail to choose the right middle management talent for this function 82% of the time. Organizational change is all about people and their shifting roles, responsibilities, and emotional ties back to the work and purpose.

The most logical role for middle management is to serve as the vital cog in the alignment of strategy and people – better known as culture. Traditionally, executives set the long-term vision while rank-and-files execute on it. The connection point between the long-term plan and the day-to-day plan can be middle management, where culture is shaped.

Empowering staff to foster culture change

Research has shown that interventions to strengthen culture results in better outcomes. For example, one study of 10 hospitals over two years found that positive culture change – achieved, in this case, through an intervention of middle management to empower staff – was associated with 1% lower hospital mortality rates. Another study found that the quality of care offered at hospitals was positively correlated with middle managers who engaged frontline clinicians, supported clinicians in improvement efforts, and built a blame-free environment.

Creating a sense of mission, vision and accountability

Great middle managers can use their talents to help achieve these results in new, unexplored ways. They can serve to motivate every single employee to act and engage them with a compelling mission and vision. They can create a culture of clear accountability. They can build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency. They can also be empowered to make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

Gallup studies have found no matter the industry, size, or location, organizational leaders struggle to understand why performance varies so immensely from one department to the next. The cause is often due to fluctuating performance metrics from the lack of consistency in how people are managed. This “noise” frustrates leaders because it creates unpredictability. It frustrates employees because it creates cultural chaos.

Middle management can cut through this noise by being tasked with shaping culture through growing people – in short, engaging employees. When a company raises employee engagement levels consistently across the organization, everything gets better. Multiple studies have consistently shown employee engagement at the front-line level generates significantly higher performance outcomes including increased profitability and productivity, lower turnover, less absenteeism and theft as well as fewer safety incidents.

Middle management, an essential part of shaping organizational culture

Instead of relegating middle management to the outdated role of literal “middleman”, they can serve as an essential part of shaping organizational culture. Barriers to growth and productivity are most often internal. Not a lack of market, market saturation, technology, unbeatable competitors, government regulation, or economic slowdown. If we want to remove internal barriers to growth, we need to focus on people.

Middle management can fill this void. Organizational change is all about people and their shifting roles, responsibilities, and emotional ties back to the work and purpose. By reinvigorating the purpose of the middle manager, we can start changing company cultures for the better and achieve the business outcomes we seek.

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