Are middle managers unsung heroes? It’s certainly easy for them to keep a low profile, while still doing an excellent job. They’re in the middle of the hierarchy so, by definition, the buck seldom stops with them. Both big decision making and hands-on creative work are done by other people in the organization, above and below them.
As author and academic Martina Nieswandt put it in our recent Expert Interview podcast, “A middle manager is the one in an organization that receives information from another manager and forwards information to another manager, so that he or she is in between.”
Defined like that, it doesn’t sound very inspiring, does it? And what child says they want to be a middle manager when they grow up? Yet, many do grow up to be one.
It occurred to Nieswandt that these managers who shun the limelight are, in fact, crucial to the smooth running of organizations. And for companies going through change, she thought, middle management might have a very special and very significant role to play.
Working both as a consultant and a researcher, Nieswandt decided to investigate what that role – or roles – might be, particularly in a cultural-change scenario. Details of this work and her conclusions are published in a new book, “Fast Cultural Change – The Role and Influence of Middle Management.”
Nieswandt began with the premise that organizational change was more likely to stick if it went hand-in-hand with cultural change. She found that middle managers are important during both kinds of change process, making their mark by juggling a variety of different roles.
For organizational change, she concluded that they need to be implementers, synthesizers, champions, and facilitators.
“As an implementer you receive information from the top management, like guidelines and objectives…This is a very typical role for the middle manager,” she says, explaining the first of these four roles in simple terms.
What about the second role, the synthesizer?
“The special aspect of the middle manager is that he or she is right between levels of [other] management and staff. He receives first-hand information from team leaders and staff members, and his job is to forward the information he receives to the higher ranks, because very often the staff members don’t tell top management what they think…so this is the second role, the synthesizer,” she says.
“Third is the role of the champion, which is a bit different. Whereas with a synthesizer the middle manager forwards information, with a champion he supports staff members who have fantastic ideas for a very good project. He champions these ideas to the upper ranks, to help them to realize these new projects,” she continues, rounding off the definition of the third middle management role.
That just leaves the facilitator, who “works with his people to develop and engage in idea generation…so that people are really engaged and can act and develop ideas and experimental thoughts.”
According to Nieswandt’s research, when an organization is going through cultural change as well as strategic change, the middle manager takes on an additional three roles: role model, feedback provider, and trainer.
Performing well in all of these roles is a challenging task for even the most conscientious and ambitious manager. In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Nieswandt offers some tips on how to do it.
If you’re a middle manager, how many roles do you perform on a daily basis, and which do you think are the most important for your team and organization? Join in the discussion below!