Are Middle Managers Fully in the Game?

January 23, 2023

by John O. Burdett

If the middle managers in your business are sitting on the sidelines … if the middle kingdom isn’t fully in the game … you don’t have a strategy … you have a problem.

Tight-Loose Leadership

No organisation of more than 150 or so people has one single and unified culture. This is often referred to as “The Dunbar Rule.” We understand from studies of social media that 120-150 “friends” represents the outer limits of an active network. It also happens to be the point at which hunter-gatherer bands fracture into smaller groups.

The challenge thus becomes one of tight-loose leadership: allow local differences (for example, the term “team” means something entirely different in Seoul than it does in Syracuse) to flourish while, at the same time, develop an overarching meta-culture that ensures common values, consistency, connection, collaboration, caring for the customer and an unrelenting commitment to the whole.

And the group that binds everything together is the “middle managers.” Moreover, they are the only group that can!

Is the Organisation’s Middle Kingdom on Board?

Virtually every engagement study shows that middle managers are disheartened, disappointed, disillusioned, dissatisfied and disengaged. Those who lead the organisation need to be reminded, regularly, of the laws of physics: effluent runs downhill. After two decades of downsizing, rightsizing and doing more with less, middle managers are standing knee-deep in the “nasty stuff.” If the organisation’s middle kingdom isn’t on board … no one is on board.

Involvement without inspiration is just more work. Content without context is momentum without meaning. Movement without traction is investment without payback. And “know how” without “knowing why” quickly becomes “not now.”

It should not be assumed that middle managers who are “disengaged” have stopped caring about the business. Lack of followership, feeling left out and what appears to be a sense of emotional withdrawal lie not in a loss of loyalty, but in the frustration that accompanies being unable to make a difference. Some come to work to make money; others to make a career; the best to make a difference. Don’t frustrate the group you need the most!

Inspirational Leadership

And the straw that stirs the middle management drink is inspirational leadership, especially from the leaders who are expected to inspire the middle kingdom – leaders one-level-up!

Leaders who inspire do four things extraordinarily well:

  1. Through imagery, symbolism, metaphor and story they make tomorrow come alive in the room today. Edicts don’t win buy-in. Threat certainly doesn’t. Fear isn’t that helpful in the long term either. And if you think hard-working middle managers are in raptures about the next PowerPoint presentation, think again. It’s not what we tell people that matters … it’s how we make them feel. People won’t care how much you know … until they know how much you care.
  2. In addition to agreed goals and scope of responsibility, they ensure that everyone on the team fully understand their role on the team. To inspire is to believe. Really believe. Believe not that the desired outcome might happen, could happen, or we would like it to happen … but that it WILL happen. A leader’s belief system is like a virus. If it’s virulent enough – everyone catches it.
  3. Those who inspire others work on the principle that if you don’t grow the people in the business, you can’t grow the business. And that growth starts with them personally. Those who inspire others display a passion to learn. They see coaching not as a nice capability to have but as central to what it means to be a leader.
  4. Leaders who inspire connect with people. This speaks to employees having a voice, pushing decisions as far down the organisation as possible, caring, listening, being authentic, bringing out the best in people and treating team members with dignity and respect. Always!

Culture Imperative: If the middle managers in your business are sitting on the sidelines … if the middle kingdom isn’t fully in the game … you don’t have a strategy … you have a problem.

This article is an extract from “The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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