The 'missing middle manager'
While lamenting bankers’ bonuses and executive pay, many of us have turned our gaze away from the most important parts of our organisations. Let’s put the executives to one side for a second and consider that the UK’s economic recovery will be driven from the engine rooms of our organisations, not the polished tables of the boardroom. It is within middle management that strategy gets translated into action and it is middle managers who have the biggest influence on motivating and engaging employees. Middle managers are the linchpin of every organisation, yet they have been missed when it comes to focusing on the skills and development needed to perform better and ultimately shape our future recovery.
We recently carried out research into the learning experiences and needs of 569 middle managers across the UK (The Missing Middle: Exploring Learning and Development Experience of Middle Managers in the UK; Amy Armstrong & Ayiesha Russell; Ashridge; February 2012.). Its findings suggest that, amid the mounting demands upon them to influence upwards and downwards in the organisation, they have little time for their own reflection or learning.
We need to get the middle moving, inspired and fulfilled. This means investing in their development.
Here are three ideas to help you to support the missing middle:
1. Target development in the right areas
Our research revealed that some middle managers think development budgets in their organisations are being targeted at senior leaders and leaders of the future, while people at their level are being missed. Is this a reality in your organisation and are you comfortable with where your development budgets are being channelled?
Middle managers want development that is anchored in people skills such as leadership and influencing. As external short courses were cited as the most powerful learning experience, think about looking to out-of-house training providers. This will help middle managers to feel valued.
2. Address the stress-sandwich
Middle managers are feeling the squeeze. Increasing workloads and performance targets mean that they are absorbing pressure from their managers above while preventing it reaching their subordinates below. We know that stress has become a major issue in UK organisations. In a recent report (Corporate investment in employee wellbeing: the emerging strategic imperative; Dr Ellen Pruyne, Ashridge & Nuffield Health; December 2011), it was estimated that 40% of lost work days are a result of stress-related illnesses. Furthermore, illegitimate absence – such as taking time off for family responsibilities – is among the top five reasons for short-term non-attendance.
So, rather than singling individuals out, why not think about addressing employee well-being by including stress management and work-life balance as standard topics across all training programmes.
3. Invest in coaching for performance
We know that for middle managers most learning happens informally, in the moment. With this in mind, think about how you might provide a safe space at work for managers to talk through the issues they are grappling with. Our research suggests that 65% of managers would like a personal coach, but just 24% of them have one. Giving managers access to a regular coach will help them discuss their strengths and development targets as well helping them to think about longer-term career goals. Furthermore, coaching managers to coach others will ultimately help them to motivate and develop their own teams for enhanced performance.