3 Key Challenges for Middle Managers and How to Help Them

The message to nowhere. We’ve all been there and seen it happen. Sometimes we anticipate it. Sometimes we see it like a slow motion car accident. Sometimes we look back on it. As leaders, you scratch your head wondering why your message isn’t being effectively absorbed by the front line. As a member of the front line, you wonder why leaders keep wasting your time with irrelevant information. 
 
The missing link is middle managers. Imagine a typical hierarchy in an organization. C-level executives at the top with a thin layer of vice presidents and directors, then a heavier layer of managers overseeing the front lines. Often, the best laid plans are hatched at the top and pushed down through the organization. In better organizations, ideas from the bottom filter up and turn into re-envisioned plans that are pushed down. But the information conduit often hits resistance at the middle management level. 
 
But before we lay blame on this cohort, let’s think about what we’ve done as organizations to create this communication and leadership void. And what we can do about it. Middle managers face three key challenges:
 
Lack of training
Do you remember the first time you became a manager? Not just in title, but to manage people. I remember my first manager role, leading a team of four talented individuals completing supply chain projects around the world. How much training did I receive before becoming manager? How do I handle conflicts between team members? What about customer issues? And what were the policies around performance reviews and time-off?
 
If your experience was anything like mine, you didn’t receive any formal training before embarking on a manager role. If you’re lucky, you may have enrolled in training after becoming a manager. But very few managers receive adequate (or any) training prior to taking on the role. 
 
We need to do a better job of preparing talent to become managers. The lack of training and formal guidelines creates challenges in managing our teams, especially in communications. How much are you supposed to tell your team, and how do you tell them? How do you lead by example and embody core values? We need to equip middle managers to carry the message if we want an effective conduit to the front lines.
 
Lack of personal engagement
As a newly minted manager, you might not realize just how important your role is. And how much the team looks for your leadership to guide them. This comes in the form of personal engagement as well as providing tactical guidance. So much of our actions are based on those around us and managers help set the tone for the front line. Sure, it’s okay to be “one of them” and have fun while building rapport, but you can’t let the team think that you’re just their friend. The manager has to lead by example and if the manager makes off-hand comments like, “oh, it doesn’t really matter” or “I don’t listen to them anyway,” then the team will take that as a sign that they shouldn’t care.
 
The lack of personal engagement from the manager creates a void in the leadership voice and is often where messages and key initiatives from the top die. Employee engagement starts with organizational leaders and those who carry the tone from the top to the front line. We need to reinforce accountability with our manager and ensure that they are avid fans of the brand and carry the message through their personal actions. We need to give new managers time to get committed - not as an individual contributor, but as a manager. We have to reinforce the importance of personal engagement as part of the responsibilities of being a manager.
 
Lack of leadership
The lack of leadership in middle management is a direct result of the aforementioned challenges. As team members are pushed into a leader role, often because of unplanned transitions rather than well-planned successions, individuals are most often unprepared to be THE leader. How do you manage colleagues you were friends with? How do they approach difficult conversations? As organizations, we need to do a better job preparing true leaders, not just those that have great technical skill.
 
A crucial leadership skill is communications. Leaders are the conduit - both in managing up as well as managing the team. As such, middle managers are a crucial conduit of information, representing strategic direction and feedback from the front line. To enable this communication, we need to help middle managers dissect doing from managing. Managers need to be trained to lead their teams by providing timely communications, being empathetic and exhibiting strategic influence. We can’t count on natural leadership abilities, which are often missing for first-time managers.
 
So as you think about improving engagement throughout your organization, think about where the roadblocks are and how you can enable middle managers to be better ambassadors of engagement with an emphasis on personal engagement. It’s no longer sufficient to be a good worker, you now have a responsibility to lead the team and be a leader of the organization. It is crucial for us to overcome this hurdle in the middle.