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Are middle managers the problem?

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

I found my self  agreeing with an article in the HR Director ( February). The authors were saying how important it was to engage with middle managers if an organisation wanted to drive lasting change. Too often the authors suggested middle managers are not consulted but simply given top down directives about what to do and say to their staff. If we take directives to include face to face briefing sessions I would agree this is  all to common way of operating.

I also agreed with the authors that such briefing sessions are not effective in getting middle management buy in so they are unlikely to do a convincing job of selling ideas and changes to their staff. Where we differ is what you should do about this. The authors solution was to better engage with middle manager, listen to their views provide safe forums for them to express their doubts, concerns and anxiety about the messages.  Yes this is good practise but once you have heard the comments of some of these middle managers can you be confident they will do a good selling job to staff conveying the enthusiasm and conviction that you know it will take to make these changes work?

I have had lead roles in driving reorganisations in a number of organisations and in my experience there is a greater likely hood of success if you bypass middle managers and talk directly to their staff. In my experience they are less cynical than many of their managers and far more impressed that a senior manager has come to explain the plans and the thinking behind them to them face to face. I would have their middle manager(s)sitting next to me for these road shows. So as they know what I am saying to their staff, so they don’t feel excluded and so symbolically we the managers are seen as speaking with one voice. These road shows need to be participative so I would divide people into groups to come up with  3 things that their team does well, 3 suggestions for how to make the changes work and their top 3 concerns.

This model worked very well for reorganisations and culture change initiative but really came into its own in a major Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiative. When it comes to EDI managers often lack confidence in managing diverse teams, they are sometimes as confused as those they manage about the correct terminology, unable to differentiate between a personality clash and something rooted in racism or homophobia and hesitant in their management style for fear of being accused of bullying or racism.

The risk is such individuals simply pass on the targets set by senior management, the changes in recruitment practices, like balanced interview panels, and the message that if you say the wrong thing you risk getting the sack. In other words a bureaucratic response which doesn’t further understanding, challenge stereotypes, convey real commitment or promote some soul searching debate.

Middle managers are very important in driving change in an organisation but being over  reliant on them to get complex and nuanced messages across to front line staff can result in messages being reduced to a few bullet points with little explanation about the thinking behind them or ownership of them.

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