• Chain of command

    Middle managers provide a vital link between the upper echelons and subordinates. But without the right skills, they may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place

    Chain of command

    Middle management can be a tough space to be in. According to research, these managers experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than their superiors and subordinates, with many saying they feel constantly worried and that they take their work stress home with them each day. Some even admitted being close to breaking point. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Middle management is a crucial tier of the leadership chain; a company’s backbone. Properly equipping employees working in this tier with the right tools and skills benefits the entire organisation.

    ‘In business today, we are experiencing hierarchical shifts that have resulted in a flattening of organisational structures,’ says Jackie Carroll, CEO of Media Works, a company that specialises in adult education and corporate training. ‘Middle managers play an increasingly important role in businesses as leaders who motivate and manage staff to bring an organisation’s vision and strategy to life.’

    While the CEO and executive-level leadership have a view from the top of the organisation, middle management is a tier that straddles two quite different levels – it is below senior and executive level management but above junior management and the general employee body. As such, it speaks to both sides of the organisational hierarchy.

    Elmarie Pretorius, managing owner of the Mindspa Institute, a company that specialises in skills development through management training and leadership development, says that the middle tier is an important part of the organisation as it is so close to the heart of the business. ‘It’s where the rubber meets the road because they’re in contact with the general workforce. They’re almost the glue that holds things together. Middle managers should be used by [their superiors] to keep in touch; to do a temperature check and better understand employee wellness.’ However, she cautions, they might feel disempowered if they’re not properly informed about their level of authority.

    ‘The rules of engagement need to be clear. You also want to give them access for decisions they might not be able to make themselves, but that need to be made. Senior management must thus be accessible to them.’

    Pretorius says that, generally speaking, not enough attention is paid to this middle tier. ‘Most often, they don’t get enough attention initially when they are first promoted and are not given management tools quickly enough,’ she says. ‘Usually, a person is promoted to middle management because they’re technically good, meaning they’re good at their actual job. The problem is that all the skills they possess that brought them to that point almost become redundant to a large extent because they’re not physically doing that job anymore; they’re managing others to do [it]. It’s this gap that’s not closing fast enough.’

    Adam Walker, head of leadership and organisational development at Webhelp South Africa, which offers a programme called Momentum, agrees. ‘A need to almost over-prescribe development is required and in my experience, this is where business practice tends to go wrong,’ he says.

    Walker explains that while educational learning is an essential part of any learning strategy, this makes up just 10% of a person’s ability to learn effectively, as the other 90% comes from a combination of hands-on experience (70%), as well as learning from and being supported by others (20%).

    Lee Kingma, a leadership and coaching executive and a facilitator of the Effective Leader learnership programme, says that the ‘new psychological employment contract’ suggests that employees should not only be physically and mentally adept, but also that they should deliver on organisational citizen behaviour. ‘In the heightened drive for innovation and global economic competition, employees are required to have both intellectual and emotional intelligence [EQ],’ she says.

    ‘A vital part of emotional intelligence is the ability for middle managers to understand themselves and others and to view opposing perspectives from others’ way of seeing the world. This leads to empowered employees who are self-correcting and self-generating.’

    Organisations that are serious about creating environments where people want to work, grow and succeed need to implement strategies that assist people to become more empowered through knowledge, she continues. ‘[Leaders] need to set the example in building a culture for continuous lifelong learning in providing training and development opportunities.’

    Carroll asserts that effective staff training and development is much like a three-legged stool that supports the business. ‘The first leg ensures you retain your staff. By upskilling employees and giving them the chance to progress, they often remain loyal to the organisation. The second leg is staff motivation,’ she says.

    ‘Through access to skills development and education – the third leg – staff feel recognised and more motivated.’ In turn, Carroll explains, valued employees are more positive and productive, using the skills learnt for the good of the business. ‘These three elements of staff training reinforce one another.’

    Pretorius feels that it’s most important for middle management staff to have command of people skills, EQ and effective communication. The value of fine-tuned business acumen – strategic planning and thinking, budgeting and understanding the essence of business – should also not be under-estimated, she says. ‘At that level you are suddenly exposed to a higher level of thinking. Consider finance training – which can be daunting if you’re not a financial person.’

    However, it is people-management skills where the biggest shortfall lies, says Pretorius. ‘We often become technically proficient or study something we are good at, though this doesn’t necessarily mean we attain people skills along the way. Yet, those are some of the most important [skills] a manager needs. This includes things like effective communication; conflict resolution; delegation; how to have difficult conversations; how to performance manage; and how to motivate. They also need to understand what it means to be a manager and a leader, because these are different.’

    Pretorius suggests a combination of formal training and mentoring/coaching to build a middle manager’s skills set. Walker agrees but adds that what really makes it effective, other than just the skill being applied, is the frequency of coaching and mentoring.

    ‘As a line manager, it’s all too easy to set a monthly review with individuals within your team and have this be the only time where performance, development or career aspirations are discussed. In our modern world of work, we know that this scheduled regular appointment can become a task, as opposed to a really engaging conversation,’ he says.

    A business coach from an external source can also give great insight, notes Pretorius. ‘An external business coach is independent – they do not have a horse in the race and can thus navigate potential political pitfalls easier and provide an objective sounding board,’ she says.

    Kingma agrees on the value of mentoring and coaching, which she says works both ways – for middle managers to grow their own skill sets, and for them to help those they manage. ‘Middle managers should be open to being mentored and coached, and foster continuous conversations with individuals regarding training and their development. They need to allocate time to identify training and development needs for their team, and provide constructive and open communication in situations of poor performance or improper behaviour,’ she says. ‘Most importantly, they need to catch people doing the right things to encourage positive action, and build individuals’ belief in self.’

    Walker argues that one of the biggest challenges in industry is embedding a learning culture into the daily way of working. ‘The responsibility lies with everyone in business, but particularly those at senior and executive level. If we are going to see radical and long-term change in middle management ability, our industry, customers and people have to adapt and invest. We need to really see and work with our middle managers while striking the right balance in business delivery,’ he says.

    As far as enabling people in the middle-management zone to thrive, Walker says keeping the employee engaged is crucial. ‘Getting the right balance where an employee in middle management feels engaged, that their voice is heard, and that they’re able to act and make decisions is really important to their longevity in that role,’ he says.

    ‘Leadership is built on the model of starting with self-knowledge, managing upwards and building trust relationships within your own team, while developing the team you guide [as you’re] responding to the external environment,’ says Kingma. However, leaders need more support now than ever before to remain effective. ‘Given that today’s businesses operate in a market environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and often ambiguous, there is a great need for new ideas, stronger personalities and a better sense of ourselves as individuals. Although it is suggested that the macro environment calls for different attitudinal competencies, the common thread in responding well is that of management resilience and continuous training and development.’

    By Toni Muir
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images