Long live the middle manager. Operating behind the scenes in roles often unrecognized by senior leadership, this unique group constitutes 7.6% of the US workforce – some 10.8 million people. An integral part of the ethos that makes companies excel, middle managers prove pivotal to the successful launch of any new product, service, or business platform. So crucial is the role of the middle manager to daily operations that this cadre of workers is described by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT, as “the most durable tech-proof profession out there.” In other words, robots can never replace them.
As today’s companies morph away from the traditional ‘pyramid structure’ that characterized the Industrial Age, the notion of who a middle manager is – and what they do – is changing. Technology is flattening long-standing hierarchies that made it easy to discern whose customer belonged to which functional area, and which group inside a company was driving new initiatives. Now, alongside the technology savvy required to link people and information, problem-solving and execution remain the “intensely human skills” middle managers must possess.
Middle Managers A Unique Breed
Just who is a middle manager in the digital age? Think sales directors, property analysts, store managers, merchandise managers, customer service supervisors, and general managers. Often these individuals remain invisible and unsung, sandwiched between a Vice President on the upper edge and customer-facing employees on the lower edge. Their role has traditionally been to ‘do’ and to ‘execute’ plans and strategies passed along from senior ranks in the firm. Yet historically, they’ve also been required to develop new talent and coordinate initiatives with co-workers across multiple teams, making them strong at collaboration and communication. Middle managers represent an essential layer of any company, turning top-line strategy into action. Notes Alison Hooker, chief talent development officer for EY LLC (formerly Ernst & Young), “Without them being able to be responsive, the organization kind of falls apart.”
Middle managers often oversee processes as well as supervise people, and during the past several years they’ve witnessed the ranks of their employees shrink. Although middle managers themselves were less reduced by the Great Recession than other tiers of management because of their hands-on role, engagement fell more sharply among middle managers than all other groups. An engineer with a food services company comments, being a middle manager “is a more complex job than it used to be,” requiring oversight of technical processes, data analysis, and productivity improvements.
Engaging Change Agents In The Middle
Can a group that has primarily been incentivized to execute rather than ‘think creatively’ impact how innovation prospers in an organization? Should middle managers even be asked to innovate? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ If middle level employees lack connection to the innovation process, they become less attractive candidates for promotion, risk defection to rival firms, and slow organizational agility as customer demands increase.
So, rather than considering middle managers just a tier of ‘doers,’ here are three ways to engage them as innovation contributors in your organization.
1 – Consider middle managers a key group for establishing technological relevance within the company. Today, when asking employees to engage in innovation means giving them access to technology platforms that provide connectivity both inside and outside your company. It means training them to use technology tools in ways that add productivity to their jobs. For example at Cisco, every employee has access to the company’s Telepresence system. They can request conference time using sophisticated touch panels that schedule discussions across time zones, looping in senior leaders or outside resources (such as suppliers or customers) very easily. This encourages deepened collaborative behavior and rich dialogue using technology. Organizations can also promote use of apps that simplify record-keeping or reduce flows of required documentation. By encouraging technology usage, companies stay technology-relevant, and prompt middle manager behaviors that help them better navigate data and communications – boons to the innovation process.
2 – Reshape the middle of your organization by valuing learning competencies rather than simply incentivizing raw efficiency. Middle managers are no longer operating in a world where ‘being in the middle’ means having cut and dried responsibilities. This group thrives on being collaborative and connected, responding to crises through a combination of expertise and human-to-human savvy. Leverage this reality by reshaping the ‘middle’ of your organization as a place where managers also learn collaboratively. Rather than creating a layer of workers that function as rats on a wheel, incentivize middle managers to ask new questions that competitors are not asking. For example at Macy’s, to ensure their managers sustain engagement and new thinking in a fast-changing industry, the company uses simulations to help this group envision new kinds of questions and problems that can arise in daily decision-making – even talent development. Simulations enable middle level employees to imagine new customer situations that stretch thinking in ways that go beyond raw tasks. Exercising mental muscles that allow them to ask new questions prepares middle managers for learning rather than just execution.
3 – Offer opportunities that aid middle managers in becoming ‘disruption ready.’ GE CMO Beth Comstock, in commenting on recent findings from GE’s Global Innovation Barometer, spoke of greater boldness needed in aiding leaders at all levels to deal with expanding complexity in their roles. Comstock argues that today’s employees need to be ‘disruption ready.’ Rather than merely accepting current business structures or processes, they need to push back and offer new options that change the playing field for their work. For example, one global real estate investment firm reached out to its staff to identify and solve a myriad of issues that were impacting the operational efficiency of the organization. The company proactively trained dozens of middle level managers in collaboration skills and provided permission and space for disruptive thinking. Rather than just plugging in existing task-based solutions these managers eagerly expanded the boundaries of their thought processes. With encouragement from senior leaders, middle managers began shaking off their ‘tasks-only’ mentality, reaching across divisions and once-sacred silos to engage new resources. Fresh perspectives began to emerge. Incentivizing middle managers to generate new conversations yielded confidence to approach senior leadership with recommendations for disruptive change.
We often think of change as either flowing from the top down or from the grass roots up. But according to James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia professor and Executive Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture, success in engaging the middle of an organization is what truly activates change. By engaging the middle, leaders can harness lasting shifts in thinking and behavior. When change is championed from the top down and the center out, companies maximize their innovation momentum.
Going forward, don’t just design your innovation strategies to engage senior leadership. Consider how the middle of your workforce can serve as a new, unsung resource for innovation and change.