Middle managers are those who ”manage managers,” translating corporate strategy into frontline execution. While they play a vital role in increasing productivity and boosting employee engagement, midlevel managers often find themselves in a difficult position. For example, those in midlevel roles report higher rates of depression and anxiety than those in the top and bottom ranks of the management hierarchy, a phenomenon that may be due to little opportunity for decision-making and increased stress levels from greater job demands.
Facing massive shifts in workforce demographics and widespread declines in worker productivity, companies increasingly recognize the importance of training and developing middle management. In fact, the past five years have seen a significant shift in most organizations’ learning and development focus away from senior executives to midlevel and first-level leadership.
However, while formal leadership development programs are table stakes, our research has revealed that there is a lot more organizations need to do to support their managers. In this month’s blog, we offer three leading practices organizations should implement to make middle managers’ jobs a little less stressful:
- Create a context for leadership growth to foster the skills that are key to success
- Establish consistent channels of communication to encourage knowledge-sharing
- Utilize succession management to develop and retain effective middle managers
Create a Context for Leadership Growth to Foster the Skills that are Key to Success
It’s encouraging that 71 percent of organizations currently have tailored leadership programs for midlevel managers. However, training is only half the battle. We learned in our recent global leadership research effort that an exclusive reliance on formal programs as the only means for leadership development is one of the primary reasons for the lack of leadership talent. Instead, the most successful organizations tend to build leadership growth into their DNA by addressing their organizational culture, their designed leadership growth efforts, and the design of their work processes.
In order to effectively support middle managers, companies need to go beyond offering ongoing training opportunities on topics such as communication, project management, data analysis, mentorship, and providing developmental feedback. Companies need to understand how these leaders learn, and how to create a context that supports their development on a daily and ongoing basis. This will enable them to develop “‘soft skills” such as interpersonal awareness, emotional intelligence, and strategic leadership, which are crucial for leading tomorrow’s workforce.
Establish Consistent Channels of Communication to Encourage Knowledge-Sharing
With the rise of big data and analytics, managers are inundated with information now more than ever before. Given managers’ daily overload of data, it is critical that organizations build a culture of knowledge management. Knowledge management is defined as “the cataloging, storage, searching, and indexing of job-related information to enable employees to quickly locate information to improve work performance.” Whether it takes the form of creating face-to-face and virtual networking opportunities, facilitating job shadowing, creating an interactive information sharing platform, or a middle management forum where participants can share leadership approaches and leading practices, knowledge-sharing is often the most effective way to translate on-the-job training into widespread employee success.
Communication and knowledge go hand and hand. To create a culture of knowledge-sharing, companies should establish effective communication channels among managers, between managers and their direct reports, and between managers and senior-level leadership. Since lapses in communication can mean the difference between sinking and swimming for a newly promoted middle manager, organizations should ensure that managers understand what they should be sharing, how often they should be sharing it, and with whom.
Utilize Succession Planning to Develop and Retain Effective Middle Managers
The retention of high-potential talent has also been shown to be a critical driver of organizational leadership maturity, and organizations need to continually identify and develop leaders and managers throughout the organizational hierarchy. Since middle managers should be adept at managing both up and down, as they are asked to enforce directives from senior leadership while also addressing the needs of frontline employees, it is essential that organizations create detailed succession plans for middle managers. By including midlevel managers in a solid succession framework, businesses can develop and retain high-potential talent while improving managers’ broader employee engagement.
Just as it’s important to charter a path from middle management to senior leadership, it’s equally important to charter a path from frontline supervisor to middle manager. The longevity of a company hinges significantly on whether or not it has a strong bench. From entry-level employee to C-suite executive, it’s critical to catalogue employee strengths and interests in order to effectively evaluate each employee’s long-term career plan at the organization.
Ultimately, senior leadership should change their traditional views on the role of middle management. Middle managers aren’t just cogs in some vast organizational machine; they’re an untapped source of value and knowledge. Incorporate middle managements’ input into strategy development. Strategically leverage middle managements’ unique position to help gain a better understanding of how to effectively implement the organization’s long-term goals. Middle managers have historically been perceived as overworked, undertrained, and unrewarded—but that perception, which has become an unfortunate reality for some, can change today at your organization.
For questions and comments please email me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Alneada Biggers for contributing to this blog article.
 “Anxious? Depressed? Blame It on Your Middle-Management Position,” Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, August 19, 2015, www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/anxious-depressed-blame-it-your-middle-management-position.
 “Productivity Slump Threatens Economy’s Long Term Growth,” The Wall Street Journal / Ben Leubsdorf, August 9 2016, www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-productivity-dropped-at-0-5-pace-in-the-second-quarter-1470746092.
 Leadership Development Factbook 2014: Benchmarks and Trends in U.S. Leadership Development, Bersin by Deloitte / Karen O’Leonard and Jennifer Krider, 2014.
 High-Impact Leadership: The New Leadership Maturity Model, Bersin by Deloitte / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.
 Knowledge-sharing is a key driver of leadership maturity in organizations. See High-Impact Leadership: The New Leadership Maturity Model, Bersin by Deloitte / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.
 Available very soon for Bersin members: High-Impact Succession Management: The Performance Model. Bersin by Deloitte/Kim Lamoureux and Andrea Derler, Ph.D.
[BH1]Should this be “knowledge management”?
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