CommonSense Blog

Are Middle Managers “The Glue that Binds Apathy to Vague Objectives?”

By Jack LeMenager | Sep 10, 2013

Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran a series about today’s mid-level managers. Full of anecdotes, quotes, and first-hand experiences, the series left this reader with the distinct impression that it’s gotten to be a pretty tough assignment.

Pushed and pulled in multiple directions, often chasing “stretch” goals under tight deadlines, middle managers must keep their bosses happy and subordinates engaged, while ensuring that their business units are contributing effectively toward the company’s success, growth and profitability.

The position of middle manager has evolved in parallel with the quickening pace and evolution of business today. Companies must be more responsive to the marketplace and their customers, while sustaining upward revenue and profit curves to satisfy shareholders. For the most part, these burdens of responsibility fall disproportionately on the shoulders of middle managers, charged with implementing the strategies.

Yet, making matters still more difficult, many organizations lack clear-cut objectives – or else the objectives change in a seemingly whimsical manner. In that environment, the approaches that worked last year for a middle manager are irrelevant or ineffective today.

Dilbert Nails It

Around the same time as the Journal series, Scott Adams, cartoonist and author of the popular Dilbert comic, produced a strip one day that succinctly and hilariously summed up his view of the current state of affairs for middle managers, the middle manager in this case being the so-called “Pointy-Haired Boss”:

© 2013, Scott Adams, Inc.

Adams’ assessment may be a cynical view of management at the middle level, but the fact that it makes us laugh reveals its nugget of truth.

Yes, too often, the CEO’s strategy is vague. And, yes, many people within organizations are not singularly focused on the latest strategic edict from on high. But in many cases, it’s understandable.

Today, many organizations struggle to build credibility and understanding among the employee audience. Often, we’ve heard employees respond to the latest strategy with an attitude that says, “this too shall pass.” They’ve seen strategic initiatives in the past and all have eventually gone away without effect. So why buy in this time?

The problem with many such strategies is that they often are shaped in a vacuum, apart from the reality of needing to engage managers and employees in their development and implementation. In the end, middle managers are left to digest strategy documents and struggle to make them relevant to their teams. Senior management in such cases assumes that the organization is following along, when in fact the people are at sea, left to guess their respective roles in effecting the new approach.

This all points up the changing roles and responsibilities in organizations today that must be acknowledged and acted on:

  • Company leadership, striving to improve return on investment while assuring that the company has a strong future, must seek to identify and enact the most effective strategy to drive the company in the right direction with a minimum of turmoil or additional cost. Assuring that middle managers and employees are involved in the strategy’s development and throughout its implementation goes far in achieving its ultimate success.
  • Communicators must assist leadership by helping to shape the strategy to assure its alignment with external and internal realities, and then by crafting the appropriate messages to convey the strategy into the organization in a meaningful and relevant way, via the right channels, providing the right context in which to disseminate those messages, at the right cadence.
  • Middle managers and supervisors are the people with the most credibility among employees and therefore are best positioned to interpret the new strategies to add relevance at front end of the business – i.e., among the people tasked with producing, marketing, selling, distributing, servicing and supporting the goods and services on which the company and its future success are built. The role of middle managers is no longer that of the command-and-control gatekeeper as in the past, but rather the translator of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, and the strategies that will guide the organization forward to address them effectively. In other words, their translation of the strategy must make it pertinent and actionable at the unit level.

Ideally, a successful future begins with a well-formed strategy, created when the leadership engages the organization and its capabilities, communicated via the middle managers who are provided the content, tools and training necessary to engage the people in the future of the organization to understand and proactively perform their respective roles in driving it forward.