Why Middle Managers are the True Drivers of Company Success

15 min read

The Overlooked Factor in Most Organizational Success

Smart leaders know that it pays to invest in their people. Straightforward, right? Not quite. Too often, companies take a top-down approach to making strategic investments in business performance. This leaves pockets of potential untapped across your organization and puts your growth at risk.

Case in point: most companies measure success by assessing their progress toward key performance indicators (KPIs) like employee engagement and productivity. The problem is that to achieve these objectives, many of these organizations focus solely on recruiting and developing a strong C-suite team.

The engine propelling your company toward its goals every day may not be what you think it is. In reality, the central factor in whether or not your company succeeds may be your middle managers and how well they are supported in their work. Investing in middle managers is key to setting an organization up for long-term sustainability and growth.

If you’ve been watching workplace trends, you know there’s a case being made to reduce the number of middle managers in some companies in order to flatten organizational structures and potentially lower costs.

This is misguided at best and harmful to your organization at worst. Why? These cuts would target the managers who are vital to your employees’ well-being, and ultimately, your company’s performance.

Instead, a wiser move is to invest in your middle management teams. In doing so, their positive impact can ripple out across your entire organization, fostering a healthier, more productive workforce and driving sustainable growth.

In this white paper, we’ll do a deep dive into the impact of middle managers on company success. I’ll share signs that your middle managers need more support to help you diagnose this problem in your own organization. Finally, I’ll offer strategies to equip your middle management team with the tools they need, ensuring you maximize the potential of these essential contributors.

Why Middle Managers Are an Easy Target—But Not the Right One

Pervasive misconceptions about middle managers can make them a target for those looking to reduce costs. The idea of the ineffective middle manager has inspired many jokes, movie tropes, and memes over the years, but these managers deserve to be more than just a punchline.

“In recent decades, midlevel managers—under appreciated and often considered a superfluous layer of the organization—have become a favorite target for the chopping block,” according to a McKinsey review of Power to the Middle, published by Harvard Business Review Press. “This view has become so widespread that it has seeped into the very identity of the managers themselves. Not only does this outdated perspective need to change, but the future also demands it.”

Some common misunderstandings about middle managers are that they:

  • Spend all of their time on administrative work

  • Have limited influence over their teams

  • Simply act as intermediaries passing on information

  • Aren’t actually leading or contributing to organizational success

These misconceptions have been around for years. Overlooking middle management is a common problem that companies are just beginning to recognize. In truth, middle managers aren’t deliberately spending all of their time on administrative and bureaucratic work. They’re often tasked with balancing a double load of managerial and individual contributor responsibilities, with the latter taking up nearly half of their time, according to McKinsey.

It’s important to understand the full story before taking action. Cutting middle managers from your workforce (Meta, we’re looking at you) can increase your risk of falling short of company goals and ultimately cost you in the long run.

In addition, while many organizations are moving to hybrid and virtual solutions, there still remains a critical need for managers who will act as the connection point between leadership and various teams. Companies with hybrid and virtual teams need more skilled hands keeping engagement and productivity high, not fewer.

Diagnosing the real problems with middle management

Middle managers are integral to your ability to keep talented employees working sustainably, without burnout. That alone should protect them from layoff decisions made a few too many steps from those in the trenches. However, these managers are often vastly under-recognized and under supported. Never mind a key to the corner office—most middle managers would be happy to feel like they’re seen and supported.

“The responsibilities of managers—and the number of workers who report to them—have skyrocketed, making it more difficult to provide hands-on assistance. According to our research, 70% of HR leaders say managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities,” according to Gartner.

A lack of support for middle management in your organization could be holding your company back in overall performance or hindering change management initiatives. While it might be tempting to assume that company leadership is the key driver of success, interesting nuances can be gleaned from a closer look at the data.

“Removing the tasks that weigh [middle managers] down—whether by automating or reassigning those tasks or eliminating them altogether—you can elevate their work and allow them to elevate the work of their reports,” according to Harvard Business Review.

Monark’s focus group research shows that middle managers view themselves as being the communicators of change. They are responsible for translating change and initiatives and processes to teams in a way that encourages buy-in and offers reassurance they themselves may not receive.

Many of these managers are tasked with motivating teams, but aren’t given much in the way of structure to do so. They’re challenged to inspire and motivate employees, tapping into human and intrinsic motivation and getting people excited about their work.

Middle managers can feel like they’re carrying everything but often aren’t given the tools to do so successfully. They may have been promoted internally and are now faced with the delicate balance of managing former peers while also losing a feeling of community with these coworkers. A lack of support for these managers leaves them feeling poorly equipped to handle their responsibilities, yet their ability to do so is essential for company success.

Considering how many critical areas they influence, the idea that middle managers are going unsupported should be a massive warning to organizations wanting to grow and succeed.

Middle Managers Hold the Key to Transformation Across Your Company

When companies focus solely on developing C-level leaders they may miss just how much of the heavy lifting is done by middle managers. They narrow the divide between leadership and employees and are a deciding factor in whether or not a company reaches its goals.

Middle managers bridge this gap by:

  • Communicating direction from leadership

  • Championing change throughout the organization

  • Enabling and ensuring productivity from other employees

  • Driving high performance across their teams

  • Building engagement in other team members

  • Supporting employee well-being across their teams

When middle managers are properly supported, they can transform employee well-being, engagement, and performance for the better.

The data is clear on middle management’s impact

Monark research reveals that employees who hold a favorable view of their company leaders score higher in vital worker outcomes, such as job satisfaction, engagement, and intentions to remain with the organization.

However, a deeper dive into the data shows that perceptions of direct leadership (as opposed to top leadership) in one’s organization, is the primary driver affecting these outcomes. What’s the difference? Direct leadership is focused on direct face-to-face people management and constructing group unity. Your employees likely rely on these leaders for communication and development. Top leadership is focused on communicating vision and embodying company values and ethics, with employees seeing these executives as a source of vision, purpose, and strategy.

Top leadership is still important, but clearly, the relationship employees have with their direct supervisors drives a lot of the outcomes that are critical to sustainable performance in your organization.

It’s a long way from the boardroom to the breakroom, and many workers don’t have much interaction with executives, if any.

Middle managers hold a critical role in driving positive outcomes and employee perceptions within organizations. Without these managers acting as communication conduits ensuring that essential information flows smoothly between senior leadership and employees, it’s possible that progress toward critical outcomes would lag or even derail.

“Strong middle managers aren’t just nice to have for all the reasons we note; they are a business imperative. Organizations with top-performing managers yield multiple times the total shareholder returns (TSR) of those with average or below-average managers over a period of five years,” according to McKinsey.

Developing your middle managers is a smart investment

As companies continue to navigate changing workplace structures and challenging labor markets, the need for skilled change management champions will only increase.

“Change management could be improved through middle managers actively undertaking a change intermediary role, thereby enabling employees to make sense of, and reframe, the change,” according to Buick, Blackman, and Johnson in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, which concludes that “managers who are actively engaged change agents, who frame and make sense of the change with employees, can reduce resistance. However, for this to be realized, organizations need to actively support the systematic development of middle management change management capabilities.”

Investing in the individuals who can best carry your organization into the future is a smart choice. The positive outcomes that flow from that investment include a stronger commitment to the company, more confidence in their work, and the ability to positively influence the well-being of others in the workplace.

Investing in middle managers allows you to create an exponential impact throughout their teams. These managers could be your company’s future leaders, so developing them into strong leaders is a savvy strategy for future-minded businesses.

With the right support, you can provide people who are invested in their growth the opportunity to invest in themselves and their skills. You can increase engagement and commitment, reducing the chance that talented managers will leave.

You’ll also create better leaders with well-developed skills in communication, managing conflict, providing feedback, and setting goals. This can impact your entire team and their outcomes by reducing burnout and driving performance.

5 Signs Your Middle Managers Need More Support

It’s clear that middle managers influence the likelihood of your entire workforce performing at its highest level, yet they often lack the support they need to be successful.

How likely is it that your managers are overwhelmed? Over half of managers report feeling burned out at work, according to a Microsoft Work Trend Index Special Report.

“Seventy-five percent of HR leaders from midsize companies agree that managers’ roles have expanded, yet roles and teams are not structured to support well-being,” according to Harvard Business Review, which also notes that “while 70% of midsize HR leaders agree managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, only 16% of midsize organizations have redefined the manager role to reduce the number of responsibilities on their plate.”

It’s wise to keep an eye on your middle managers to ensure they’re well-supported to enable all the positive outcomes they deliver. It could leave your organization open to costly missteps and underperformance if they aren’t.

Here are five signs that could indicate your middle managers need more support:

  1. High turnover

  2. Decreased morale (e.g., indicated by disengagement and negativity in the workplace)

  3. Increased stress and burnout (e.g., indicated by absenteeism)

  4. Lack of alignment with organizational strategy (e.g., indicated by a lack of clarity or focus on priorities)

  5. Breakdowns in important communication channels (e.g., indicated by silos or a lack of teamwork)

If you observe these symptoms in your middle managers, you can extrapolate your concern to include the teams they lead. As powerful influencers of other employees, these managers should act as signposts that give you clear warnings of what might lie ahead.

For example, not only could these symptoms affect your ability to retain your middle managers, but it’s possible that their high turnover could signal retention issues across the organization. Their dips in morale, stress levels, and burnout numbers are likely to lower the motivation of their teams accordingly. Gaps in strategic alignment and communication could put your whole organization at risk.

Monitor how things are going and what supports you currently have so you can offer resources or development when and where needed. A watchful eye on how your middle managers are doing enables you to act promptly when challenges occur. Instead of having to address these issues once they’ve grown too big to fix, you can adapt your approach and ensure the proper supports are in place so your managers lead their teams to the performance you need.

Strategies for Effectively Supporting Middle Managers

To effectively support and empower your middle managers, review the areas where they have a significant impact and compare those areas to your organizational goals. Then be prepared to invest in their leadership skill development so they are adequately prepared for the roles you’re asking them to do.

Many middle managers get promoted and are provided with a brief workshop, a book, or a personality assessment, but these don’t prepare them to effectively lead in your company.

Instead, consider the outcomes you could see if you were to invest in your middle managers with development opportunities that ramped up their influence and impact. Through this lens, it’s easy to see where developing the skills and capabilities of your middle managers can return tangible results for the company.

Development opportunities for middle managers

Leadership development shouldn’t be a carefully hoarded benefit reserved for a select few on your team. Strong leaders can be nurtured and developed across your organization to ensure you have a skilled and effective workforce driving performance at all levels.

Wondering where to start? Look at the key functions your middle managers are tasked with and the skills you’ve identified as relevant to each. Build support and development in these areas and watch your middle managers flourish.

At Monark, our mission is to create super leaders. We empower people to invest in the betterment of their skills and personal development. We create more committed leaders who are more engaged and less likely to leave your organization. We amplify the impact of these leaders so teams can flourish and deliver better outcomes. And finally, we help them build a solid foundation of leadership skills to navigate their roles more effectively.

For example, your middle managers will likely benefit from development opportunities in motivating teams, increasing productivity, tackling difficult conversations, and other behaviors critical to leading others.

Typically, managers may have access to passive online learning courses that lead to low completion rates, or one-off workshops/sessions. These won’t serve their needs, or yours. The real solution lies in high-impact learning experiences delivered at scale.

Monark: On-Demand Leadership Development for New and Emerging Leaders

Middle managers occupy a crucial role in organizations, but their contribution is often overlooked. In fact, many organizational goals would not be achievable without middle managers who bridge the gap between leadership and front-line teams.

The responsibilities of middle managers include communicating leadership direction, championing organizational change, ensuring productivity and high performance, building engagement in their teams, and supporting employee well-being.

“HR must also partner with operations to simplify the day-to-day manager role. By reducing administrative burden and fostering continuous skill development, L&D can help managers better lead their teams and run their businesses. Otherwise, organizations will struggle to execute and lose a critical piece of the talent pipeline over the next few years,” according to HR.com.

I’ve outlined the critical role middle managers play in driving company success and demonstrated the impact these managers have on the teams they lead. I’ve broken down the misconceptions about middle management and shared key findings that underscore the importance of supporting these managers within your organization. I’ve offered a way to diagnose these issues in your own company and outlined strategies you can employ to turn the tide back toward growth and success.

If you want to drive performance in your organization, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to support middle managers. The positive impact of such support can lead to transformative improvements in employee well-being, engagement, and performance.

Monark is an interactive, development and performance optimization platform. This innovative methodology is the first to incorporate a harmonious blend of live, expert-guided learning and an intuitive digital platform, ensuring accessibility and scalability.

Using cutting-edge leadership research, our platform combines behavioral nudging, micro-learning, and AI for interactive leadership training. Our mission is to assist effective leaders in consistently applying the practices that elevate their performance.

Are you ready to amp up the impact of your middle managers by investing in and prioritizing their development? Schedule a demo of Monark’s on-demand leadership development platform today.

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