Many middle managers feel that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. When I speak to line or middle managers, which is on a very regular basis, it is not that phrase which immediately springs to mind, it is a single word – undervalued. Stuart Rock, the founding editor of “Real Business” and the “Business Is Great Campaign” describe middle management as “the stage where hopes stagnate and pathways to progress disappear …. trapped between the realities of customer demand and the aspirations of senior executives – and they are blamed both by the top team and frontline staff”.

There are two perceived problems. One is a terminology where “middle” suggests “average”. The second is how new technology is being implemented. This has created a race for flatter organisational structures and, due to instant communication tools, a breakdown of hierarchical structures. While many middle managers fear the next cull, some are thinking that the role is slowly becoming irrelevant. However, when speaking to CEO’s and senior leadership teams, none of them have yet expressed a preference for having hundreds or thousands of direct reports so it is important to recognise how this vital role can continue to help organisations and its people to more than they are currently perceived to do.

In 2012, Stanford University analysed the performance of 23,000 frontline workers and concluded that replacing a “poor” manager with a “strong” one correlated with an increase in productivity of 12% - the additional output gained by adding a new member to the team was less at 11%. This is compelling evidence that a middle managers add around 1.75 times as much output as the average worker, which is in line with the differences in pay received by the two types of employees. However, what they define as a strong boss is even more compelling – one that teaches. Teaching work skills or work habits accounted for two-thirds of the added gain.  

The challenge, therefore, is largely one of changing the middle managers’ skills set. Perhaps there is a good reason why middle managers are often seen as a layer of bureaucracy as they seem to become engulfed in it. This can be a defence mechanism to help them to avoid being exposed for a lack of knowledge or organisational strategy when they are asked questions but this trait does unlock one of the key areas for middle managers to develop. They need to ask questions in order to answer the ones posed at them. The first step in becoming an inclusive manager is to gain the confidence to engage positively with their staff. If the middle manager does not know what is going on or why decisions are being made, they will not want to lose face by engaging in that discussion with staff.

There have been many times when a middle manager has been visibly influenced by our 15 Strategic Questions – a tool usually taught to newly elected representatives. Many middle managers attending our Stage 1 course have gone on to use these 15 questions to expand their own knowledge of strategic decision-making by asking them up the line and by using them to plan an operational implementation of that strategy. A simple, yet effective, tool. This has given them the confidence to involve their staff more in these implementations which has, in turn, given the staff an opportunity to raise and develop their ideas in a more professional way.

To become a teacher you really have to know the strategic narrative and help people to develop ideas that avoid the wish list by focusing on the potential business benefit. It also requires a check on their ego so that they can really listen to the staff they are managing. Some argue that it is natural to be wary of the person who is “too clever by half” and to feel threatened by their potential. Here, senior leaders and chief executives must provide the middle managers with a good role model by keeping a check on their own egos and to invest in the line’s development.

It is not just about training middle managers more effectively, it is also about making sure they are judged on more than just “getting the job done” because that can be achieved at a great deal of cost. These costs can be avoided if we can develop middle managers to see a constructive challenge as a positive and to feel proud when someone they have coached reaches their full potential. So many middle managers I see on a day to day basis are not only capable of doing this, but actually want to do so but feel as though they are held back by bureaucracy, lack of information and – above all – properly targeted training. For many organisations, that 12% productivity increase is a long way away. 


Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

[email protected]

07780 697024