Retention of the forgotten folk: middle managers

by HRM03 May 2012

Middle managers play a crucial role in delivering results, supervising and engaging the bulk of the workforce – yet this integral management group also experiences excessive stress, disengagement and a high degree of attrition as a result.

As companies shift their business strategies to remain competitive, mid-level leaders are the ones executing corporate mandates and agendas and making bottom-line decisions about cost, quality, and efficiency for companies every day.“Middle management is the most important part of a company’s workforce as they are the ones who actually get the work done,” says Vishal Nagda fromLodha Group.

Yet more often than not, middle managers are caught under pressure between delivering strategic objectives set by senior executives and managing line managers, leading to excessive stress and disengagement.“They live in an ‘in-between’ world where they get criticism from employees for not being attentive to their needs, or investing time in helping them perform and grow; and at the same time, face pressure from their leaders to deliver on stretched goals with limited resources in an environment of uncertainty,” says Mira Gajraj Mohan from Towers Watson.While they can also be first in line when organisations look to reduce their head count, Ben Willmott from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says it is also important to remember the crucial role these managers play in managing change, translating the objectives of senior managers into actions, and motivating others.

Stagnating roles a crucial problem

According to DDI, 49% of mid-level leaders around the world feel their roles have a degree of stagnation. The more stagnant the leaders’ jobs were, the more likely they were to say they would give up their leadership position if they were offered the same compensation or reduced compensation to be an individual contributor elsewhere.

Middle managers are mostly those aged between 30 and 38 and it is during this period that they explore their strengths and weaknesses, says VivekCherian, head of HR operations APAC, SunGard. “HR should have clearly defined career paths for middle managers that help explore their capabilities and strengths as they develop their weaker areas,” he says.

For instance, timely performance assessments, job rotations (both lateral and vertical) and overseas assignments should be factored into development plans for these managers. “Also, clearly defined performance goals that include people leadership and behavioural goals are a must as this will drive the required culture through the organisation,” says Cherian.

Middle managers should also be periodically engaged in special projects which would expose them to newer skills and be a test of their leadership capabilities. “Organisations must act as a learning ground wherein the managers are continuously updated on best practices in the industry as well as given various tools and techniques for effective leadership,” says Nagda.

Internal growth prospects and training and development opportunities also work towards developing mid-level managers and building their competencies in functional, technical, business and leadership skills related to their roles.

One way of motivating middle managers is by telling them that their talents and skills are being noticed and that the organisation wants them to grow to the next level. Clear distinction between job responsibilities at different levels helps in avoiding confusion and thus encourages engagement in work. Open channels of communication between the hierarchies also enable middle managers to concentrate on issues which are of their concern and priority.

“Middle managers should be given more responsibility, along with the authority, to make independent decisions and senior leaders should act as guides rather than dictate how work needs to be done,” says Nagda. “Middle management is most keen to seek enhancement in their job profile by way of additional responsibilities or cross-functional exposure.”

Top tips to inspire middle managers

Towers Watson has the following recommendations for improving middle managers’ engagement and performance:

  • Refocus managers’ rewards away from personal production and towards team production and team member growth and development goals.
  • Reconfigure managers’ jobs to allow more time to focus on people.
  • Equip managers better to be more effective at identifying and responding to individual employee differences.
  • Inform managers about the employee learning opportunities available (eg, build more and better sources of information into the manager self-service portal, enable them to design projects and assignments to suit individual team members).
  • Be more effective at delivering informal rewards (eg, recognition).
  • Give managers more control to encourage innovation in how work gets done in their work groups.


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