Supporting Middle Management

By: Together Abroad 05-12-2016

Categories:** HR Leaders Talk,

Many commentators and researchers often overlook the function of middle management within an institutional hierarchy. However, middle managers are often vital to the success of a company.Theymake many important decisions, often in a context in which they do not set the overall strategy themselves. Understanding the importance of this intermediary level, and its function in implementing the strategic and organizational goals of a company, is a necessity.

Middle managers are responsible for implementing policies and plans decided by top-level management, as well as the organization’s general strategic objectives, in the most efficient way possible. According to Mary C. Niles, their role involves working together with top management to accomplish a wide variety of goals. These include working under delegated responsibility, such as the day-to-day running of the organization, and to cooperate among themselves and with top and lower management to ensure the organization functions smoothly.According to research, leadership is an important competency that middle management must utilise. This involves the skills to motivate and influence subordinate staff, to demonstrate the level of work required by the organization, and in general be a good role model.

Top-level management generally has an agenda setting role, providing an overall direction for the company. In this way senior management helps define the broad strategy of the organization, which middle management then takes on in a more micro-management capacity.Top-level management can also help facilitate information flow both within as well as outside the organization, which middle management then uses to share horizontally amongst its own members, and vertically to bottom level management. An organization that vertically orders managerial functions in this way (which is quite common in large companies) allows for different levels to focus on an ever-narrowing scope of responsibility.

Shedding of managerial levels has been a common occurrence in many organizations, in order to streamline the decisionmaking process. This has the effect of pushing core managerial responsibilities onto middle management, which does not always have a positive effect. In an interview of managers at Bank of America, many reported that their work had come under increased control. At branch level in Fleet Bank, prior to its takeover by Bank of America, managers were judged on their ability to sell banking products. They had freedom in how they decided to do this, and creativity was encouraged. Since the bank’s takeover by BoA, their work has become more “scripted” by headquarters. As one manager noted, “I am frustrated because I have lost the freedom to determine how I am going to achieve my goals”.

Middle management matters, particularly for knowledge-based companies. Research has shown that the impact of CEOs, CFOs and other top management positions on large firms is limited. These positions explain less than 5% of the variation in firm performance among Fortune 800 companies. According to Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick, “for a lot of knowledge-based industries – it is all about the middle managers”. Mollick’s research focused on the games industry. He found that it was middle managers (rather than innovators or company strategy) that best explained differences in the performance of the company. Managers accounted for 22.3% of the variation in revenue among projects, compared with 7% for innovators and 21.3% by the company itself.

In conclusion, middle managers have a tough job. With a finite set of resources, and without being able to control everyone’s actions, they are nevertheless primarily responsible for ensuring that a company runs smoothly. In facilitating information flow amongst themselves and vertically to other departments, and in motivating and influencing subordinate staff, they are uniquely positioned to ensure that the core strategies and goals set by top-level management are implemented efficiently. In supporting them, you are ensuring the success of the company.

Adam Watson

Photo credits: Designed by Javi_Indy / Freepik