Middle Managers: A Key Leverage Point for Performance Improvement – Professional Growth Systems

Middle Managers: A Key Leverage Point for Performance Improvement

Performance improvement is a much sought after goal of pretty much every organization. Unfortunately, the secrets to one organization’s successful performance improvement are usually as unique as the organization itself. However there are common themes throughout successful improvements that can be applied to a wide sweep of organizations. One of these is better utilization of middle managers.

Over 30 years of management consulting has made clear that the locus for a breakdown in performance improvement often lies in middle management.  The first step in better utilization is to understand what tends to be broken in mid-management and get some fixes. In this post I’ll focus on two basic breaks: lacking a feeling of team and communication breakdowns up and down the hierarchy.

A missing sense of team

Organizations focus on team building for their C-suite, albeit with mixed records of success.  Similarly, on the other end of the hierarchy, front line working groups tend to naturally coalesce as teams as they are doing the same work, share the same view of the organization, their customers, etc. But, the middle is often a desert between these two groups.

The functions that middle managers oversee do not compel them to naturally come together as a team, as is the case with front line groups. On the flipside, they are not often in the know and not consulted regarding strategy by the executive team, so there is not a shared reality there either. The result is each mid-manager tends to function as an isolated entity, responsible and focused on the work of his or her direct reports.

However, work processes most often move from one functional area to another. Therefore, as the leadership of these various functional areas are focused primarily on their own work groups, performance improvement across functions breaks down.

Broken communication lines

In almost every organizational assessment that we complete with our clients, lack of communication is cited as one of the top three problems, no matter the type of organization. I have found that the culprit here is often middle management. The organization is designed so that middle managers relay information from the senior level to their departments and vice versa. There is usually little or no accountability to assure that communication takes place. Middle managers have full plates, and disseminating information is often what gets pushed to the side.

This is often the beginning of breakdowns in performance. Why?  Numerous studies have shown that employees judge their worth to the organization not by their title or compensation, but by the extent to which the organization is willing to enter into two-way dialogue with them.  They are judging whether their opinions and ideas are of value.  The less they are valued, the less their motivation.  The less their motivation, the less their performance.

What’s the fix? Redefine supervision

Supervision in organizations is rooted in a belief system that employees need an overseer, director and judge in order to perform.  While that may be true for up to 10% of those who work for you (they should be encouraged to move on), the vast majority of workers are committed to perform well and to master their positions.  They don’t need an overseer, they need a partner in their own pursuit of success.  A recent study by the Intelligence Group found that 79% of millennials want their “bosses” to serve as a coach or mentor.

In this new role of partner, supervisors need to focus and evaluate themselves on whether they are holding up their end of the partnership agreement, i.e. providing the resources, knowledge and support to facilitate peak performance by subordinates, like the communication mentioned above.  In Creating High Performers, I outline a methodology for doing just that. The methodology arose out of a realization early in my career that many of the employees who were not succeeding were struggling because of my shortcomings, not their own.

I began to develop a checklist for myself so that I could query direct reports as to whether I was repeating the same mistakes with them.  The checklist evolved into a conversation that could serve as a replacement for the dreaded annual evaluation and also could aid supervisors in coming to certainty as to whether poor performance of an employee was due to their shortcomings or intentional non-performance by the employee.

The Bottom Line

Organizations seeking to improve performance should leverage middle management better by using the following methods:

  • Create a better sense of team amongst the mid-manager group and between the mid-managers and the organization. Reinforcing their value as key links between the C-suite and front line helps achieve this.
  • Assure that middle managers are not breaking down the flow of information between the C-suite and front line of the organization. Try a “Management by Walking Around” technique, in which leadership can query front line workers re. what questions they have of you or the organization.  If they should already know the answers, then you know middle management is not communicating consistently or well with staff.  Starting this practice will quickly get your middle managers to strive to be better communicators.
  • Re-define supervision from overseer to partner. Give supervisors the tools to make this shift and then hold them accountable.
  • End the practice of the annual evaluation and replace it with quarterly conversations between supervisors and employees. To receive the conversation checklist I developed – the 7 Questions – send us an email.
  • Empower front-level teams to improve their work processes on their own, positioning middle managers as coaches not gatekeepers.

Middle managers can be a valuable asset to an organization, and its performance improvement efforts. Instead of allowing this asset to perform at a sub-par level, provide the training, tools and theory to fully utilize this valuable resource of personnel.