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Why the “middle” matters

Mid-level managers get a bad rap in American culture. They are the “Rodney Dangerfield” of most organizations … they don’t get much respect. They are stuck in that sandwich of leadership, doing their best to implement the far-sighted strategic goals of executives while dealing with the gritty day-to-day ordeals of managing and motivating the workforce.

Most of the portrayals of mid-level managers we get in our popular media and culture involve a less-than-perfect image of authority and control. One of our most popular TV shows is The Office, where the manager is portrayed as an insensitive boor who uses all the latest leadership and corporate buzzwords but can’t manage anything. One of our best known comic strips is “Dilbert,” which features a character who works for a “pointy haired” moron who, through ineptitude and arrogance, manages to negatively impact all those around him.

Are these images true?

In the business world, I have found the following to be true:

  • Middle managers are the “face” of leadership to 70-80% of the organization
  • They are the ones who manage and direct the day-to-day operations, usually in a fast-paced and changing environment
  • They establish, define, and reinforce culture in an organization
  • They create, live, and tell the stories that become the lore and reputation of their organizations
  • They are the ones that are ultimately responsible for the success of any organization
  • Many times they are the real catalysts for change
  • Surprisingly, they are the ones most open to change (because it affects them the most!), as long as the message and reason for change is clear and they trust in their leaders.

Smart senior managers and executives know that the mid-level managers keep the wheels running. Middle managers, as keepers of the operational flame, need the tools to be honest, open and frank with their leaders and teams. The ironic thing is that our mid-level leaders need many of the same skills as our executive leaders to make sure this happens. Interpersonal and relationship skills such as assertiveness, emotional intelligence, communication skills (interpersonal and public), and motivation are all crucial skills for effective management at all levels.

Most employees make the transition to management with strong technical skills and little in the way of interpersonal skills. As individual contributors, their work relationships are typically one-on-one.

Managing and motivating teams and groups requires communications and influencing skills at a much more complex level than at the individual contributor level. Mid-level managers should know how to get things done through people and relationships.

These managers also need to have the courage and skill set to voice, share and sometimes challenge valuable opinions and ideas with senior leaders. They need to feel comfortable in their ability to effectively communicate and motivate their teams with the goals and objectives of the organization.  In other words, they are the link between where the organization wants to go and getting their co-workers to march there!

Many organizations don’t have the time or resources to effectively help new leaders transition effectively to this first important level of leadership. They might host a management workshop or two, but by and large new managers get trained on the job in a trial-by-fire approach.  By evaluating the present skills and weaknesses of an organization’s mid-level managers, and designing a workshop run by professionals that specifically targets these assets and shortcomings, management can create a difference in the work environment.

With training, mid-level managers will learn how to convince and motivate workers to cooperate and work as a team towards corporate goals by utilizing new interpersonal skills. They will understand how to approach executives with new ideas, objections, and alternatives through more successful communication. And they will become an invaluable link between company objectives and teams of workers.

 Post by Mark Mueller.


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