Leadership Insight: Alleviating the frustration of middle managers

by 23 Nov 2011

The middle managers in your organisation have the opportunity to directly influence the attitudes, behaviours and performance of a vast number of your overall staff. When these managers feel frustrated by particular actions and events from above it can have significant impact on the effectiveness of their performance, which then impacts the overall performance of the organisation.

After years of training hundreds of middle managers across a wide range of industries, the feedback on the frustrations that middle managers experience with their bosses (the executives in the organisation) remains remarkably constant...

From up the chain –

  • Lack of clear objectives – not sharing and communicating clearly the immediate and future plans/objectives for the direction of the organisation
  • Lack of performance against objectives – staff not getting regular updates as to how the business is tracking against its set goals and objectives
  • Lack of clear communication channels and protocols, which results in the information relevant to the middle manager’s role and duties not being communicated properly
  • Required to take "ownership and responsibility" for their people without sufficient authority to make decisions
  • Lack of support for decisions made, whether those decisions were the right or the wrong ones
  • Insufficient assistance with tough issues
  • Changes in executive staff leading to changes in direction and priorities – each new executive changes the previous executive’s priorities resulting in the entire process starting all over again
  • Excessive constraints on capital expenditure

While some of the frustrations mentioned above are inevitable, the best (and most successful) executive managers I’ve encountered are those who truly believe that high performing teams lead to high performing executives and are willing to take the time to invest in understanding how to get the best out of their people.

For HR and L&D professionals, when executives come to you to discuss issues, concerns, or just to complain about their team, I think it’s worth re-enforcing some basic fundamentals as to how they can get more from their teams – particularly with the added pressures of today’s tough economic climate:

1. Communication is key

The tougher the times, the more people crave information. Uncertainty creates a very unproductive workplace. Regular focused meetings with your teams as a whole as well as regular one to ones with each individual middle manager open up the communication and feedback channels and provide an ongoing opportunity to hold people accountable for their progress against goals.

When giving feedback to your people be transparent, honest and constructive and don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

2. Deliver on your promises to your people

 If you expect your people to deliver on their promises then so should you. Lead by example and try to always think how you would perceive your behaviour and actions if you were the middle manager looking upwards.

3. Support your middle managers

You want your middle manager to be accountable and find their own solutions to problems but that involves taking risks. If they make a wrong decision or try something new that doesn’t work, don’t punish them for it, otherwise they’ll be much less likely to ever stick their neck out again. Support them by assisting them to evaluate the process and work out why things went wrong so they learn from the experience.

4. See potential but realise limitations

Assuming you’ve got the right person for the job (and if not, move them on fast), accept that some things will never change and so your time is better spent framing tasks and interactions around areas of strength, or weaknesses that can be developed.

5. Provide coaching and offer suggestions

When they express their frustrations about carrying out various parts of their role, take the time to offer suggestions and guidance on how to handle these difficult situations.

Remember: the more engaged and motivated your people, the greater the amount of discretionary effort – and hence productivity – you’ll receive in return!

About the author

Leonie Curtis-Kempnich is director of training and course development at Leadership Success. For further information phone (02) 8069 0370 or visit www.lstraining.com.au