Article (October-2021)


Build culture of transparency and humility to strengthen middle management


Designation : -   Executive Vice President and Head HR

Organization : -  ITC Hotel Group


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How do you decode the Middle Riddle? What are the most relevant issues involved with   middle managers in the organisations?

SB "Ike was like a giant umbrella. He absorbed what was coming down from above, shielded his commanders from higher authority, and about them to fight the war without excessive second-guessing." - Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace. This is a textbook definition of the Middle Manager.

Simon Sinek says that middle management is the toughest job in an organisation and it is not difficult to see why. The role requires two different and conflicting functions by the middle manager - The first is Entrepreneurial and is about growth, innovation, implementation of new ideas and is largely the task of the management layers above. The second is the Maintenance function which is to ensure current performance and efficiencies and therefore needs downward focus. Each of these functions require the middle manager to constantly switch between different styles, manage conflicting priorities and stakeholders. Walking a tightrope between the two hierarchies, simultaneously balancing the equations between the two layers with different set of expectations and agendas yet delivering on each, is the role of the middle manager. This creates emotional stress and therefore requires a unique set of abilities which the middle manager must possess to be successful. Substantial research has been done to establish the impact of this vertical role-switching and many organisations have taken measures to deal with the aspect.

The second issue is with organisations which expect middle management level as a 'passing step' in the road to a CXO suite. This fallacy inevitably leads to unhealthy pressure because middle managers are just that - middle managers. Not many have the potential, or the will, to progress to leadership roles and the sooner organisations learn to recognize and respect middle managers for what they are, the easier and more productive it becomes for them.

Does the Corp Inc. recognise the existence and value middle managers? If yes, why it is not visible and appreciated enough? If not, what reasons you can count upon?

SB It is often said that middle managers are the most un-celebrated segment of management which has been least researched and is superfluous. Indeed, many organisations have experimented to design structures without middle management but have inevitably recognized the need and impact of this level. In the last one to two decades, research has conclusively proven the impact of mid management levels on organisational success.

As stated earlier, middle managers are instrumental in the smooth running of an organisation by acting as a cohesive, binding factor between hierarchies. They excel at balancing the equations between the two layers and therefore implementation and execution of an organisation's strategies and policies, depend majorly on the potential and the contribution of the middle management level. They are often the deciding factor between the success or failure, while translating the organisational policies into practice. They also contribute significantly during policy formation by providing inputs, as they are more hands on. One can safely state that middle managers have much to contribute when it comes to building an excellent organisation.

The quality of the middle management gives an insight into the leadership pipeline of an organisation. It's here, that some wisdom/caution needs to be exercised. While it is great to develop the bright ones as future leaders, some are excellent middle managers and that is their USP. The way we understand that not all can be excellent leaders, similarly not all can be great middle managers. The ones that are, need to be celebrated.

The ability to perform a balancing act between hierarchies and perform and deliver as a leader as well as a follower simultaneously, while switching roles between the two constantly, is also a trait that needs to be valued and developed.

Not many are aware of the anxiety and emotional upheaval caused by juggling two conflicting roles and the constant pull in two different directions which could affect their performance. It's here that some sensitisation and awareness needs to be created, to ensure that the middle managers get their fair share of care and appreciation.

Do you think that the middle managers are self-responsible for their misery or failure in the organisation? What can be the strategies to make them more competent?

SB Success or the lack of it can never be about entire strata. It depends on individuals and the middle management are no exceptions.

Some of the capabilities critical for middle managers' success are effective communication, delegation, negotiation, collaboration and decision making skills. The middle manager needs to be proficient in managing performance and also acquiring and retaining good talent. These are critical areas where weaknesses can translate to disasters of varying magnitude for the organisation. Organisations must put in systems to identify gaps and requisite training must be imparted in any, or all of these.

The stress associated with being a middle manager is, at times, deterrent to their individual performance. The challenges associated with disengaging from one mindset and switching to a task that needs a different mindset can be exhausting and draining. One tends to lose focus, gets distracted or at times even demotivated. This is where they need support and coaching. Besides this, a conscious effort by the management above to allow autonomy with least amount of micro-management is another tool which works well in such circumstances.

There will be instances where a middle manager is pressurised by the front line to toe a different line than the higher ups or vice versa. This conflict can lead to a scenario where the middle manager is confused or in a dilemma. Development programs on leadership as well as upward influencing are good tools to use in situations like these.

An environment of psychological safety needs to be created, where the middle managers have a space for candid expression, the comfort of sharing and airing their views without repercussions. This can be of immense help in bolstering their confidence level and deliverables.

From the top management, a culture of transparency and humility, goes a long way in strengthening the middle management making them more secure, competent and productive.

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