Article (October-2021)


Organisations need to ensure enough visibility and recognition for middle managers

Bimal Rath

Designation : -   ounder & MD

Organization : -  Think Talent, Gurugram


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

BR The key issues to my mind revolve around three broad areas, at an individual level :

Ability vs. Aspiration : Clarity around both aspects is important Research shows us that we all overestimate our capabilities, and it is also the same for middle managers. Also, many middle managers tend to be unclear about their own strengths and purpose, so they are often drawn in by short term aspects. E.g. a promotion and salary hike leaves them happy and sometimes without reflection of what it will take to really succeed at the next role. They are so happy with a short term milestone like this, that they forget to prepare for the long career ahead, and often lose the perspective of this being a marathon.

Re-invention : Careers today are a series of curves rather than a single straight line. So if each successive curve has to be higher and better, the skills and mindsets that go with it have to change. One of the key beliefs of middle managers is that they 'have arrived' because of the early career and visible signals like money and quick movement through the ranks. The invisible stuff gets left out. E.g. the variety or depth of skills being picked up. The gentle buttonholing through a series of promotions into a career where it may end up being a dead end. The growing irrelevance of certain skills or roles due to technology, industry shifts or consolidation, or just sheer consumer preferences changing. And many then get caught off guard. The book Who moved my Cheese is worth reading as a reflection around some parts of this phenomenon.

External Orientation : Many managers are so engrossed in their jobs and day to day affairs that they are unaware of their surroundings. Organisations are also partly to blame in several cases, they do not provide enough time or space for reflection to the individual. This leads to two things. Firstly, the individual's awareness on what is happening around them is vague at best. The reality that the world is changing significantly does not touch them, till the hard reality dawns one day, that they have not kept up with the changes. Secondly, managers who are extremely dedicated and hard- working lose the ability and willingness to reflect, and reflection is a critical skill for survival at and growth to higher levels.

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?

BR Certainly there is recognition. Managements realise the crucial role middle managers play. They are a crucial link in the communication and execution chain.

There could be a few reasons for a certain lack of visibility and recognition, although it varies from organisation to organisation. Leadership is to be held accountable as being a party to perpetuating these reasons, apart from the individual not being able to see the consequences of these.

Among the reasons which one comes across are :

  • There are too many layers of middle managers without clearly differentiated roles in the system. E.g. a manager/senior manager/AGM/DGM all look and feel the same.
  • They are not involved in real decision making, so remain just transmitters (or postmen) if one were to be uncharitable.
  • They are neither doers, nor decision makers, very often only span breakers.
  • They are generalists in many cases, not bringing any special skills to the table, and are easily replaceable.
  • They have not kept up with the times, as discussed earlier, and younger front line managers are taking over their roles without much difficulty.
  • Middle managers themselves losing energy, hunger and pride in their work and become visibly lacklustre.

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?

BR Perhaps that is a very harsh view to take. Having said that, if managers are not careful in their early years, they can get sucked into a state where redundancy or stagnation is most likely to be the outcome.

We have discussed some of the issues above. There is certainly an aspect of skills and competence but the larger issue is about perspective. If the managers build perspective and change their paradigm, it will spur them to re-skill themselves.

Among others, the three aspects to keep in mind for helping middle managers gain perspective and build skills could be :

  • Organisations of the future will be about self-managed teams and projects, agility and empowerment, rather than layers of bureaucracy and hierarchies. Thinking about organisational hierarchies and linking it to careers may be a sure shot way of committing career blunders. (think about Holocracy as the new way to organise)
  • Networks, both internal and external to the organisation, are critical for learning and growth. Widening and deepening relevant networks are key also to influence and effectiveness in one's role.
  • One has to give up many skills to be able to gain new ones. Letting go is key. This is difficult as most of us are too tied to comfort zones. An active way to experiment with new ways of doing things and picking up new skills is required. It may even come at the cost of some short term failure, but will be worth it.

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