Unfreezing middle management to achieve breakthrough

Hyper change can lead to two opposite reactions: accelerate or stall. How can middle managers be supported to accelerate?

By Professor Sally Eaves, author and global strategic advisor in emergent technologies and founder of Aspirational Futures

Middle management is the fulcrum for all successful transformations. As a researcher, I have long been fascinated with the role of the middle manager in organizations large and small. But never more so than now.

Over the last two years, we have seen unprecedented organizational change. It’s even altered the relationship between employers and employees. Middle managers have a central role to play in brokering these new relationships. They embody, enact and execute change. They can have a profoundly positive and negative impact. And yet their role is often overlooked or underestimated.

Within the right culture, challenge brings opportunities for them to shine. Outside of that culture, it can bring dysfunction and uncertainty. It can ‘freeze’ middle management.

The pressure pot of ingredients: The acceleration in digital transformation, heightened adoption and integration of emergent technologies and the push to do more with less are overwhelming and paradoxically numbing middle managers. The common response to too much change is resistance to change, denial and consequential inertia.

In the middle of a changing workforce

Responsible for the daily operation of the business, shaping the environment and the day-to-day experiences of employees—middle managers are feeling the squeeze of their station. Boston Consulting Group recently declared that the management model is in crisis, with managers burning out and adrift. Columbia University reported that 18% are reporting depression symptoms.  Toggling between supervisors and supervisees, the middle manager role can be complex, isolating and demanding.

With some 4.3 million people resigning in the U.S. during December 2021 (3% of the available national workforce), the Great Resignation has become more than a newspaper article headline; it is a reality. But with the rise in digital transformation and increasingly decentralized, hybrid models of working, work-life has become a duality of extremes. People are working more but quitting positions at higher rates. Multiple surveys have found that employees are putting in longer hours from home than they were before the pandemic. Overworked, feeling unappreciated and experiencing a blurring of boundaries that negate work-life balance, workers (including middle managers) are resigning in search of greener pastures.

Those left behind are often working more than one person’s job. A powerhouse may be able to manage that (although it’s not sustainable for long periods of time). However, many middle managers aren’t moving at full throttle. Many are frozen.

My research has identified that if “Organizational Velocity” is high while other key influences are suboptimal, it can lead to disengagement rather than active sharing, giving way to a lack of team trust. According to Dell’s Breakthrough study, this is compounded by middle managers’ slower pace at adopting new technologies when change vectors are high. So, how do we “thaw out” the frozen middle?

Look up

While middle managers are expected to pragmatically resolve issues across the organization, who or what is supporting them? Matt Baker, senior vice president of Corporate Strategy at Dell Technologies, believes we can’t talk about middle managers without examining the leadership. If work were a stage, with middle managers delivering the lines, leaders should be setting the stage; providing the right direction, lighting, sound etc.

“As with any problem, you need to understand it before you can propose a solution,” posits Baker. “Why is middle management frozen? Is your leadership team modeling empathetic change and communicating clear instructions? Are they inspiring change and trailblazing innovation in their everyday? Are they reassuring managers that their roles are going to be helped by technology and not threatened by it?”

Celebrate all skills

As well as looking up, we also need to look across. A balance of skills is imperative. Middle managers must evaluate and deeply understand the opportunities, challenges and impact of data across business and societal outcomes and be able to best navigate these. The role of the middle manager is evolving into that of a translator. They must possess the capacity to balance skills from each side and communicate in a language that both C-suite and new entrants can understand.

It takes an underpinning foundation of STEAM skills and core competencies around literacy. Tenacity, determination and resilience are also essential. As Matt Baker says, “Change is vital but often uncomfortable. Think of transformation as a knothole. Being pulled through is painful and difficult, but the rewards on the other side are significant.”

Show they are valued

Now more than ever, organizational success requires a new and openly articulated appreciation of the middle manager role, making it a position to aspire to, not avoid. Presently, just 39% of middle managers polled by Dell say they are experiencing mentally stimulating (not repetitive) work; 41% would embrace automation as an opportunity to focus on more strategic opportunities and elevate their role.

With this, the question becomes: how to engage those who are ready to elevate, as well as those who are hesitant? The answer lies in a holistic approach to talent engagement, bringing together flexible working, active management listening and support to prioritize a culture of belonging so that no one feels undervalued and everyone can find purpose in their work. This should include access to the tools, skills and technologies that drive growth and enable creativity and productivity. Middle line workers will achieve powerful progress as they go from being informed change intermediaries to informing agents of change.

By thawing out middle management, we can spark a renaissance of work-life that leads to the next age of satisfying work at every level. As the middle finds momentum, we might soon see what I like to call “The Great Aspiration.” Despite living through an era of rapidly shifting organizational change; despite the immense strain on middle management, it is possible to “unfreeze” middle workers so that they feel appreciated, seen and confident in their abilities to adapt. With a revaluation and reappraisal of this critical role, I believe we can begin to change the narrative and move beyond a Great Resignation to a new chapter that, to echo Dell, finds the innovator of all of us.

This is an abridged and edited version of Sally Eaves’ fuller article for LinkedIn.

Lead photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash