Middle manager can make or break change

29 September 2017

29 September 2017

10 prerequisites for successful middle management

For a middle manager to act well between the top of the organization and the shop floor and prepare for change, 10 prerequisites are in place. These are 4 peripheral conditions to provide clarity for the function, 3 to better organize the function and 3 to further develop the function. Below I will elaborate on the 10 preconditions.

Clarify roles, objectives, responsibilities and authority

What expectations does the board have of the middle manager? What is the framework within which the middle manager operates? A middle manager completes 4 preconditions to provide clarity about the position.

Several roles and responsibilities can be identified for a middle manager. The roles are: communicator, controller, leader, connector, implementer, appointment maker, administrator and planner. In addition to these roles, the middle manager is also increasingly seen as a change manager or project manager, and then the list of possible roles is probably still not complete. It is important to note that there are a variety of roles and associated responsibilities, these are subject to change but, above all, all need to be filled by the middle manager.

To prevent a middle manager from failing to meet the expectations of the board (upward) or employees (downward), it is important to be clear about the role of the middle manager. Does the middle manager play an important role in maintaining customer relationships? Or should the middle manager manage some improvement projects? Management expectations will need to be expressed and, where appropriate, formalized in the middle manager’s job profile. An additional advantage here is that questions of help and training and coaching needs of the middle manager in relation to these role(s) and responsibilities, and the desired behaviors required for this in practice, are also discussed.

In many organizations, there is little to no focus on the connection between strategy and realization. The board assumes that the middle manager makes the tactical translation from strategy to realization. In my experience, due to a busy schedule, some managers often lose sight of the original goal. This compromises the tactical translation. I personally believe strongly in “Management by Objectives” (MBO), introduced by Drucker. The core of MBO is setting goals together, from organizational goals to employee-level goals, and feeding back results so that the organization’s performance improves. The starting point is the strategic organizational goals, which stem from the organization’s mission and vision. However, translating organizational goals to the employee level is crucial. So management must set the goals jointly with middle management, and then middle management with the employees. Then the conversation and frequent feedback on the state of affairs through coaching and development (as an organization and person) is also very important. If this does not happen, there is a chance that middle managers will still lose sight of the original goal, let alone that any adjustments can be made through corrective actions.

Clear goals also bring focus. “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal,” Henri Ford once said. Focus on where you want to go and turn daily worries, contradictions and conflicts into challenges that contribute in achieving your goal.

The core of Management by Objectives is joint goal setting and results feedback. Results will need to be measurable for this. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Drucker stated. Yet in many organizations, establishing and using Critical Performance Indicators (KPIs) to achieve the objective often proves difficult.

Ever since Kaplan & Norton introduced the Balanced Scorecard, every organization has had KPIs. But often these do not produce the desired effect. This is because people confuse the objective (the result) with the KPI (the measure against the objective), and the KPI often becomes leading. Accountability for poor scores and being held accountable for them is often the result. This gives KPIs a negative connotation, while they can also be used to make the process and people better and develop the organization. To change a culture of accountability into a culture of continuous improvement, gaining trust and having the space to learn from mistakes is very important. Here is a role for the board, but also for middle managers. In a culture of continuous improvement, KPIs are used to learn from and to develop the people and the organization. But when KPIs are used effectively, achieving goals and performance follows naturally.

For successful use, KPIs meet some conditions. First, KPIs are SMART. SMART, part of Management By Objectives, stands for Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound. They are 5 elements that you fill in for each KPI. In addition, it is advisable when a department does not have too many KPIs. A maximum of 3 to 6 per department keeps it organized and manageable. Finally, each KPI has one or more owners who can actually influence the results.

In the performance of his function, ambiguities may arise about roles, responsibilities and authority. This creates traffic problems due to vague signage. In addition, it is also common for middle managers not to take responsibility and authority. How does this come about?

Responsibilities and authority go hand in hand if it is to be successful. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in practice. This is because processes transcend the often hierarchical job structure.

A middle manager then appears to be responsible for a result area while not having (decision-making) authority to take actions necessary to achieve a particular result. If ambiguities exist, a RACI matrix can be the solution, which defines roles and responsibilities. RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. From the process and function structure, areas of responsibility emerge. By setting these out and defining for each area of responsibility who is ultimately responsible (Accountable) and who is authorized or accountable (Responsible), ambiguities can be avoided.

But even when ambiguities about responsibility and authority are removed, it happens that middle managers do not take responsibility. Being accountable means that a middle manager is willing to be accountable, monitored and held accountable for his behavior and choices made. This may be perceived as a heavy burden or cause anxiety. Especially in an organization where mistakes are not allowed. Again, an important role for management lies here. Management will need to emphasize and create the importance of development and giving and receiving feedback to learn from mistakes. A culture of continuous improvement rather than a culture of accountability. In a culture of continuous improvement, a middle manager is more likely to take responsibility and see mistakes as a learning process in the development and change of the organization.

Organizing span of control, time, and action and decision making

How does the middle manager want to fill the role in practice? How does the middle manager want to achieve the goals? A middle manager completes 3 prerequisites to better organize the function.

The number of employees a manager manages is called span of control. This number varies by organization. Middle managers should not be responsible for too large a group of employees because proper supervision, and where necessary personal attention, directly affects department performance. Because of this, it makes sense for an organization and middle managers to jointly consider the optimal span of control.

The following factors help you think about the optimal span of control:

  1. Task complexity (nature of work, task heterogeneity, measurability);
  2. Task maturity (motivation, leadership style, abilities, experience);
  3. Relationship manager and subordinate (equality of knowledge and goals);
  4. Organizational characteristics (size, type, turnover, environment, geographic distribution).
  5. Ambition to improve the department (employee training, number of continuous improvement projects)

However, the ideal number of employees to be managed cannot be quantified. Take, for example, the factor of organizational characteristics. Managers in a “flat organizational structure” often, by definition, have a large span of control. A flat organization has few hierarchical levels, so the span of control is automatically already larger. When the nature of the work requires regular substantive involvement in customer meetings, for example, this has a negative impact on the span of control. The same goes for inexperienced employees who need training. Less time is left for management in both cases. Internal solutions can be found in the short term to increase or decrease the span of control. Consider staff positions (e.g., HRM) or senior team members who support with direction and/or take tasks off the hands of the middle manager. However, for the longer term, a middle manager would do well to develop the department by training inexperienced employees and continuously improving processes, project-based where necessary.

A middle manager is always responsible for filling his own position. He will have to think how to put the role(s) and projects into practice and achieve the objectives. In addition, the middle manager must also be able to free up time for his employees, have space to handle various (unexpected) signals (phone/email, internal and external) and participate in appointments or meetings when necessary. In short, there is a great demand on the middle manager’s time and agenda. Effective use of time and agenda is important.

Effectiveness begins with setting priorities. Covey’s important/urgent matrix is a useful tool for prioritizing issues and should be familiar territory for every middle manager. Then, throughout the day, different signals or unexpected things continue to come along. One system and methodology for dealing with this is Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. The main principles are; write down all signals that come to you (and cannot be dealt with within 2 minutes), write it down in the form of a next action and regularly maintain the lists that arise. However, Covey’s tool and Allen’s methodology do not prove to be sufficient in practice. Effective time and agenda management, then, for me, is putting into practice time management as the middle manager wishes to fill it. How much time does a middle manager wish to spend weekly on projects? How much time does a middle manager actually spend on projects? What actions are needed to achieve the desired time commitment? But in addition to time spent on projects, it is also important to think about time spent on meetings and administration. Every middle manager should have answers to these questions for all the time commitments that have arisen from their role(s), responsibility and authority, objectives and “span of control.

Employees spend a lot of time in appointments and meetings. You often see that this takes a lot of time and energy. But meetings help share information, achieve goals and solve problems. For this, a middle manager does need to have a good idea about the desired time commitment, in line with precondition 6, have made proper preparation and have thought about his role in these meetings and appointments.

A middle manager who wants to achieve his goals and (re)manage his key business processes and KPIs must work together by organizing meetings around these topics, among other things. In this way, the middle manager creates one or more moments to measure progress against the objectives and make (adjustments) together where necessary. Therefore, in preparing for the meeting, the middle manager must purposefully invite participants to make this happen. Also to ensure that when a middle manager is absent, a staff member can assume their role and thus a meeting can always go ahead. During the meeting, the middle manager should take an objective leadership role, leading conversations/discussions and possibly making decisions. Here, it helps the middle manager when action and decision lists, focused on ownership and deadlines of action items, are used instead of minutes.

During meetings, it also helps a middle manager when he sets aside time to give and receive feedback from employees. In line with “Management by Objectives,” the middle manager can use this time to clarify strategic goals, coach and support employees in achieving goals, and give employees space to voice concerns or ask for help. Although in some cases a bilateral appointment, one-on-one, may be more effective and safer for an employee for this.

Development of process thinking, recognition of role conflicts and self-knowledge

How can middle managers respond more quickly to real-world situations? How can middle managers remain flexible in times of change? A middle manager completes 3 prerequisites to further develop the position.

Middle managers sooner or later, willingly or unwillingly have to deal with processes. Processes involve an arrangement of activities, the start is formed by input, the process itself transforms this input into output, thus adding value to the (partial) product for the benefit of the customer. Thus, a process is a series of activities (performed by humans or machines), requiring various resources, information and communication. A process runs across different departments and sometimes even different organizations. A manager is more or less forced to think in processes and/or end up describing them. There are always activities, information and communication flows that a middle manager must manage. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Process management to improve – Gain insight into process improvement through methodologies such as Lean, Six Sigma and Business Process Management
  2. Process Management to Governance – Gain insight into key business processes and process indicators that contribute to achieving (organizational) goals and a positive bottom line.
  3. Process management to control – Gain insight into quality requirements, application of rules and measures within processes to comply with laws and regulations, internal – or external quality systems or accreditation/certification (e.g. ISO 9001).
  4. Process Management to Change – Gain an understanding of the various change processes, steps and stages to manage change, through methodologies such as Deming’s PDCA cycle, Prosci’s ADKAR and Kubbler-Ross’ Change/Mourning Curve.

In addition to process improvement, governance, control and change, increasing transferability and learning capability through knowledge sharing are additional benefits of process management.

A middle manager plays an active role in change processes. This can be a paradoxical task because many of these changes also affect the middle manager himself. After all, leading change requires executives to set the right example. However, a number of other role conflicts lurk. These conflicts can be classified as intrapersonal (with oneself), interpersonal (with management or employees) or an intergroup (between management and employees). Conflict may arise because; the expected role, responsibility or task of the middle manager:

  • Does not match his expertise and knowledge (see precondition 1)
  • Does not have clear objectives (see precondition 2)
  • Does not match his powers (see precondition 4)
  • Failure to agree on deadlines
  • Does not match his interests
  • Does not match his beliefs/ideology on the desired approach
  • May lead to conflict of interest

A middle manager must be able to identify, recognize and name these role conflicts. Proactive managers suffer less from role conflicts is my experience. To minimize role conflict, it is important to express and align the different perceptions, expectations and priorities between middle management and management.

Self-knowledge is essential for every middle manager. A middle manager should regularly create time to gain knowledge for and about himself. Training and education can enrich a middle manager, especially when it is clear what the middle manager can develop in and development can be focused.

Self-insight begins with a middle manager who regularly seeks feedback on his behavior from colleagues, family, friends or partner. Through feedback, the middle manager gets a good picture of the effects he consciously and unconsciously generates in his environment. In other words, the blind spot. The blind spot is the space that is unknown to you, but known to others. When the middle manager gains insight into his blind spot, targeted development can take place.

In addition, it is important for a middle manager to be and remain curious himself. Without curiosity, risks are avoided, challenges are sidestepped, new contacts with others do not develop, interest in new information disappears and research does not take place. Without curiosity, a middle manager remains stagnant in his development. Remaining unbiased to the world and asking questions instead of judging does move a middle manager forward. A middle manager does well to discover where his strength or hidden talent lies, what he enjoys and what he grows from. The better he knows himself, the better he can convey this in the position of middle manager.

Final word

Finally, I would like to pass along two important pieces of advice.

1. A middle manager does well to continually manage the ten preconditions.

In times of growth, change and changing priorities, it is important for a middle manager to continue to clarify, better organize and develop their function. In addition to time and energy, this requires boldness and courage from a middle manager. Conversations with management or staff will not always be easy, but the position in the organization requires them to engage in difficult conversations as well. It is impossible to keep both management and employees happy at all times. Change simply involves resistance, and sometimes unpopular decisions must be made.

2. A middle manager needs structural support from management.

Successful change starts at the top. This starts with providing clarity on roles, responsibilities, powers and objectives. Subsequently, the management has a supportive and coaching role towards the middle manager by giving space and trust to learn from mistakes and in, for example, (re)steering the objectives. A middle manager cannot do this alone. Management itself will also occasionally have to explain unpopular decisions to employees. On the one hand, to set its own course, and on the other, to indicate that the board is behind the middle manager.