Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Keep middle managers exactly where they are: Emily Field

The author of Power to the Middle and partner at McKinsey's Seattle office on why the role of a middle manager is long overdue for a makeover, and the need to allow them to shed their roles as paper pushers

Published: Jun 5, 2024 06:04:25 PM IST
Updated: Jun 5, 2024 06:12:05 PM IST

Keep middle managers exactly where they are: Emily FieldEmily Field, author of Power to the Middle and partner at McKinsey's Seattle office
Emily Field is a partner in McKinsey’s Seattle office. She shapes organisational strategies to establish talent management as a distinctive advantage, preparing leaders to manage the workforce of tomorrow and create business value. She is also the co-author of Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work. In an interview with Forbes India, she explains why managers must be allowed to shed their roles as rule enforcers and paper pushers, and reinvent themselves as coaches, connectors, and talent managers. Edited excerpts:

Q. Why do you think middle managers are an undervalued lot?
Middle managers are indispensable-yet-often overlooked, caught in the crosscurrents of economic shifts and technological advances that have reshaped organisational structures over the past three decades.

Historically, middle managers have been the critical links between senior leaders and frontline staff; however, the rise of flatter organisational hierarchies and digital communication tools have often marginalised their responsibilities. Our research reveals that today, middle managers only spend 25 percent of their time managing people.

This, paired with a heightened focus on efficiency and cost-cutting has further eroded their perceived value and spotlights the need to reimagine the middle manager role for contemporary work dynamics.

Q. In the present context of work, workplace and workforce, how can their role be reinvented?
Today, 43 percent of middle managers report burnout, more than any other job level, while 44 percent cite organisational bureaucracy as a top frustration. In our book Power to the Middle, we argue that to meet the demands of the new world of work, middle managers must be allowed to shed their roles as paper pushers, bureaucrats, and rule enforcers, and reinvent themselves as coaches, connectors, navigators and talent managers.

At their best, middle managers act as culture carriers, embodying and reinforcing the values and practices of the organisation. Their behaviour, communication style, and approach to problem-solving set the tone for their teams. They will be needed at the forefront of guiding their organisations through a coming period of rapid and complex change.

Q. Coaches and Connectors—what value can middle managers bring in these roles?
As coaches, middle managers can provide personalised guidance and development to their teams, directly impacting employee engagement and productivity. They can mentor team members to take on more complex projects that lead to individual growth and team success. As connectors, middle managers bridge the gap between upper management and frontline employees. A middle manager can facilitate communication and collaboration between different departments to help align strategies and operations effectively. Managing a hybrid workforce remains a challenge for many organisations today. Middle managers can help remove ambiguity by creating ways of working and norms that help employees understand what activities are best done in person and whether those activities are best carried out in real time or asynchronously.

Q. How far can they help in winning the war for talent?
In the ongoing war for talent, middle managers play a pivotal role in shaping prospective employees’ perceptions of an organisation. They are the ones who often dictate how, where and when work is being done—keeping in close contact with workers to enable as much flexibility as possible. Middle managers can offer a sense of belonging to create a supportive culture in a way that senior leaders cannot, not only attracting great talent but also helping keep them around. It’s important to remember—candidates are assessing the organisation and the hiring manager just as much as the hiring manager is assessing them, so the hiring manager must cultivate a relationship with the candidate, help the candidate connect their purpose to the work, and understand what drives him or her.

Also read: Middle managers: The forgotten heroes of innovation

Q. ‘Keep middle managers exactly where they are’—what do you mean here?
‘Keeping middle managers exactly where they are’ challenges the conventional wisdom that advancement up the corporate ladder is the sole measure of success. The word ‘middle’ itself implies that the role is a stop on the way to somewhere else—ideally, the top. Instead, we need to keep middle managers at the centre of the action and recognise and enhance their current contributions.

Our study of middle-level managers revealed a strong desire for increased decision-making power in their positions, on par with monetary incentives for their achievements. A project manager in a software development company might be given additional responsibilities that make the most of their expertise, like overseeing multiple projects or leading cross-functional initiatives, to provide new challenges and growth opportunities.

Providing additional responsibilities and autonomy can satisfy middle managers’ desire for recognition and growth without necessitating promotion.

On the other side of the coin, not everyone is interested in—or well suited to—becoming a manager. We shouldn’t think about promoting to a management role as the right career progression for every employee. For example, I was talking to a chief technology officer at the end of his career about his biggest regrets. One regret was promoting his best programmer to a team lead role. He shared that the programmer didn’t like the managerial role and didn’t excel with the shift in scope and responsibility. This led to several members of that team leaving and ultimately the programmer left, too.

Q. The importance of training managers is lost upon most organisations. What’s the ripple effect?
The failure to invest in middle manager training has profound ripple effects, including lower team morale and engagement, decreased productivity, and higher turnover rates.

Important training areas to consider include essential management functions, like effective communication, team motivation and conflict management, and decision-making. Devoid of these competencies, managers find themselves ill-prepared to effectively steer and bolster their teams. For instance, a middle manager lacking conflict resolution training may permit unresolved disputes or allow them to escalate, fostering a toxic work atmosphere and undermining productivity.

Over time, the failure to prioritise manager training can yield extensive repercussions for the organisation. Elevated employee turnover rates often ensue, as personnel depart due to issues with their managers rather than the job itself. The resulting loss of talent and institutional knowledge can be costly. Furthermore, this oversight can stymie innovation and adaptability, as untrained managers may lack the acumen to cultivate a culture of continual improvement or adapt to evolving market dynamics.

Q. What are the ways in which future-forward leaders can empower managers?
To empower middle managers, future-forward leaders can adopt strategies like nurturing continuous improvement, encouraging innovation, and involving managers in high-level decision-making processes. This can include offering leadership development programmes, workshops on emerging trends and technologies, and fostering a culture where middle managers are encouraged to experiment and take calculated risks.

In our book, we propose strategies for leaders to empower middle managers, such as providing autonomy, resources, and recognition and aligning their roles with organisational goals. Granting autonomy involves allowing managers to make decisions, solve problems, and lead initiatives within their scope without excessive oversight. This trust and freedom can boost their confidence and motivation.

Q. What are the skills a 21st-century manager should possess?
In the 21st century, managers must possess a blend of both soft and hard skills to adeptly navigate the intricacies of today’s workplace.

Emotional intelligence is paramount, enabling managers to grasp and regulate both their own emotions and those of their team members. Practical communication skills are indispensable for effectively conveying information and fostering an environment of open dialogue. Leadership and motivation abilities are essential for inspiring and guiding teams toward the attainment of objectives. Additionally, adaptability is crucial for maneuvering through the constantly shifting business landscape.

Hard skills also play a pivotal role. Strategic planning aids in aligning team objectives with broader organisational goals. Financial literacy proves invaluable in budget management and comprehending the financial ramifications of decisions. Technological proficiency, especially in the realms of relevant technologies and data analytics, is increasingly vital.

The fusion of soft and hard skills equips managers to adeptly respond to changes in the business environment. By refining these skills, managers can effectively lead their teams to success amidst rapid change and uncertainty.