The so-called ‘squishy middle’ of management is often perceived as a barrier to transformation, but what if we engaged this layer as change agents?

Good management gets a bad rap

Ed Zitron’s critique of lazy back-to the-office articles in the media starts from the premise that remote working is now proven, and the onus is on management to make a case for the continued relevance of traditional office-based methods and systems.

Okay, we are how many years in now? And this is the best you’ve got as to why people should go to the office. Collaboration? Relationship development? Are you … kidding me?

To be extremely blunt – these articles are exercises in narrative construction. If the Wall Street Journal and New York Times decided, they could easily change the bent of these pieces from “the nasty little workers are being rude and not going to the office” to “bosses are asking people to go to the office with no real justification.”

Of course, if you see the challenge from the point of view of middle managers, this makes sense. Courtiers need a court in which to press the flesh and win favour, and a socio-political hierarchy needs to be visible to be real, which is hard when we all are equally-sized rectangles asking if anyone can hear us (now).

But if you start from the question of how best to build and run modern, digital organisations, you would probably head in another direction altogether. Instead of each new wave of technology innovation being assimilated by and wrapped around the management org chart and the rhythm of non-stop ‘meetings’, we could be building out peer-to-peer platforms and networks to coordinate work, and then asking where management can help, boost or add value.

Over the long-term, mechanistic, manual management as practised in the previous century probably won’t be the norm in agile, adaptive organisations of the future. We will cultivate more emergent and collective leadership within, rather than above, the flow of work, and transition the massive over-supply of generic, middle management courtiers into more productive roles that don’t disempower and slow people down quite so much.

But that is not to say that all management is bad or value-destructive. Supporting people, organising work, coaching, networking, and a host of other tasks can all be very helpful, even if most of the basic work and communication coordination tasks are replaced by automation and data sharing in the digital workplace.

Emma Jacobs in the FT recently wrote about the new challenges middle managers face in coping with hybrid and remote working, on top of the other cultural shifts and challenges that the post-lockdown world of work is coming to terms with. It’s clearly not an easy gig right now.

The image of the middle manager, says Zahira Jaser, associate professor at the University of Sussex Business School, is still mired in “anachronistic ideas that they are uninspiring”. Elise Finn, co-founder of Nkuzi Change, which provides coaching to middle managers at large employers, agrees. They can be “characterised as the ‘frozen layer’ who block change”. In reality, they are given the responsibility for change with very “little input [in] the strategy… They need support and recognition rather than blame.”

Nonetheless, research by Microsoft found that 74 per cent of managers say they don’t have the influence or resources to make change for employees, and 54 per cent say leadership is out of touch with employees.

Is the solution more leadership and less management? This has been a cliché of executive education for some time, but perhaps not, according to Jim Detert, Kevin Kniffin, and Hannes Leroy in MIT Sloan Management Review:

Organizational success depends at least as heavily on this daily work as on the lofty stuff. Without strong execution, grand thinking — principled missions, compelling visions, and clever strategies — will amount to very little.

Despite the massive attention given to the inspirational aspects of leadership, the evidence is clear that most people in the workplace still aren’t inspired, engaged, or truly committed. Many are heading for the exits. Good management can help solve these problems. It isn’t less valuable than good leadership — if such a distinction should even be made — nor is it any easier. It requires guts, grit, and a lot of practice. And it’s crucial to how people feel about their organization, how they perform, and whether they stay. Let’s stop pretending that it’s a lesser skill set — and get serious about building it.

And outside of the superstar visionary leaders we like to put on a pedestal in the journals and articles, the reality of most leadership in elaborate divided hierarchies is that it is often blind to major challenges and responds with weak, bland strategy formation that adds up to ‘more of the same, but a bit better’.

This is most obvious in the astonishing leadership failure within leading US and European automotive firms, who have been so slow to respond to the Tesla-driven shift to electrification, as the Wall Street Journal recounted last week:

… some executives from traditional car companies acknowledge they were too cautious on their early plans for electrics. “We sat around and said, ‘Who really wants an electric truck? We don’t know,’ ” said Mr. Palmer, adding that Ford determined manufacturing targets around three years ago.

(the waiting list for Ford’s breakthrough electric truck has been over a year)

Can we transform managers into agents of change?

So rather than bashing middle managers, or trying to circumvent them, how can we engage them in leading organisational transformation?

The shift from vertically-divided bureaucracy, with its legions of managers who keep the machine working, towards laterally-connected platforms and networks where people can coordinate work directly, feels like a major re-alignment in organisational design and it could fundamentally change the way management is practiced in the future. Ideally, helping to achieve this should be the last big mission for conventional middle managers – a once-in-a-generation challenge – before they transition into more connective and hopefully productive roles.

Steve Denning believes we can drive change from the middle, not just the top, and shares 7 tips for doing so. This chimes with our experience running executive education programmes for emerging leaders: one of the best outcomes is when a learning cohort stays connected and supports each other in launching cross-functional change missions when they go back into the organisation with a sense of what is possible.

…as most big firms see the inevitability of digital transformation and make huge investments in it, mid-level managers may as well get ready for the digital revolution that is coming to them soon, even if their current work has no obvious digital dimension.

Moreover, if they look closely at cases on a success path, like Novartis, they will notice that these efforts began in the middle to cope with the Covid pandemic.

Indeed, an earlier study by knowledge gurus Davenport and Prusak showed that most innovations originate from the middle of a firm, not the top. (Example: AWS at Amazon.) Even digital transformations inspired by the top require leadership throughout the organization to implement, as Marco Iansiti and Satya Nadella report in HBR.

There are lots of other good techniques that can help achieve this, such as digital guides networks, shared change missions and also the spread of low-code / no-code tools and platforms to allow people closest to the work to re-design processes and workflows to support it. These are all the kinds of initiative where experienced managers can become valuable change agents, connectors, coaches and supporters.

But it needs a shift in management mindsets too. As Chris Bolton wrote recently, perhaps the first most important change is to Rip up your Culture Change Road Map and learn to use a Compass – in other words, navigate change rather than trying to predict and plan your way through it like a conventional change project.

Road Planning maps aren’t suited to change in complex situations. They oversimplify and drive people towards imagined outcomes (that probably aren’t right or achievable).

A vector based approach is better. Work with the disposition to change within the system, use a ‘compass’ to guide you along the direction, and Trojan Mice to probe the territory. It has a far better chance if ‘arriving’, especially if it’s done together, gyda’n gilydd, co-productively.

All of the above doesn’t offer quick guaranteed success. It involves a lot of deep, serious hard work. Unfortunately that isn’t popular. So I expect to be irritated by road maps for some time to come.

Let’s not see middle management as custodians of the old creaking hierarchy who are beyond redemption. Many would grasp the chance to continue their career development in a more productive and connected way, and their experience could be invaluable. Maybe we should focus less on convincing senior leaders about transformation, and instead build digital movements in the middle zone with the promise of reinventing middle management as change agents and connectors.