How can you build a high performing middle management team?

Employment & Skills | Reports

Sarah Willingham

One barrier to growth for businesses looking to scale-up is ensuring that middle-management teams are motivated, productive and aligned with the company’s ambitions.

Having a middle management team that just goes through the motions or is disjointed will hold back growth.

The influence of the middle manager

Often described as the ‘treacle layer’ – a recent report from Ricoh UK described the average middle management team as often resistant to change and not as motivated as those above and below them in the business.

Rebekah Wallis, Director of People and Corporate Responsibility at Ricoh UK explains: “While junior employees are often eager and comfortable to learn, this isn’t always the case with middle managers. Enter the treacle layer.

“For business leaders often hungry for change in order to reduce costs and achieve greater productivity, encountering this sticky resistance from senior leadership can be a major problem. Change management, the red thread running through every transformation project, needs to be focused especially on this group, and with the right support mechanisms in place.”

So, how can a business leader empower these employees to change their behaviour and support collaboration?

How to empower middle management

Men and women in these manager roles often experience the difficulties of the top and lower ends of the business. Senior leadership have overall responsibility for the business, but it is the middle management who often carry out the day-to-day duties to keep the business moving forward.

For this central part of the business to move as fluidly as possible, empowerment could be the answer.

Gone are the days of the command and control, regimented office hierarchy, where barking orders leads to results.

Dean of Bath Business School at Bath Spa University, Georgina Andrews comments: “Business leaders should understand and communicate to middle managers that they are also leaders.

“Middle managers, teams and even individual employees all have opportunities and the power to facilitate change as well as provide stability. Not all these changes may be intentional or predictable. Business leaders are the creators of the organisation’s ethos, whether this has an ‘atmosphere’ of control and fear, or alternatively one of unlimited possibilities and development.”

Rebekah Wallis agrees: “The first step to empowering your staff is listening to them. If design solutions which maximise workers’ productivity are to be implemented successfully, there needs to be an understanding of challenges they face and how the workplace affects this. Early involvement in the change process will ensure staff feel their point of view is being considered and result in support for new processes and technology.

“Empowering staff can also mean introducing them to specialists who can help them overcome their own knowledge gaps and upskill them. This is particularly important as work becomes more specialised and businesses find they can’t do everything themselves. It also allows managers to scale teams up or down according to need, making headcount more agile.”

How senior leadership can inspire change

Empowering management can lead to better results in productivity, output and ultimately, the bottom line – but this cannot be done by just being good at listening and reacting to their issues or concern. A leader must take charge of the business and its direction.

In order to achieve this, the middle management team must be inspired to achieve the business goals of the company. The best way to keep the manager
motivated is by being the role model of a manager to them.

In essence it comes down to being an inspirational leader who sets a clear direction for the business and puts their staff first.

By helping relieve pressure on under-trained, overworked staff, you can understand where they need help – and if necessary – place them on training courses to learn the skills or even teach them in person through one-on-one meetings.

Joe Crossley, CEO of national training provider Qube Learning comments: “It’s vital that leaders have a clear plan of what they want their business and their team to achieve. This should not only set out the structure and the objectives of a company, but also include targets that will stretch and challenge employees. 

“It’s important that the people around you see that you care; it’s ok to show emotion if things don’t go as planned and celebrate when things do. It’s crucial that every team understands why you do what you do, what motivates you, and how you got where you are.

“Creating an environment where people can grow and develop is also important – it’s okay to make mistakes, but don’t make the same mistake twice. Leaders should surround themselves with people who want to learn and develop, but also people who can teach. Learn from each other, listen to different views and don’t be afraid to change your mind!”

It’s clear that the modern business leader has a lot to think about when it comes to inspiring middle management, but what can be done to help accelerate growth?

Role of technology and modern working

As with all sectors and all sizes of business, the role of technology and the introduction of flexible and tailored working environments can help build a high performing management team.

Technology needs to be introduced correctly, with adequate training and explanation on how it will make these employees’ lives easier to manage their own teams.

Rebekah comments: “A recent study from Ricoh found that while 98% of employees are enthusiastic or excited about the introduction of new technologies, a third don’t feel equipped to get the most from traditional software, let alone new technologies such as AI.

“If you introduce new processes, technology or workplace solutions, you need to ensure employees understand why they were introduced, how best to use them, the benefits and who to ask for help. Doing so will mean people are more able to change their behaviour and the changes will stick.”

It is these changes that can stop this ‘treacle layer’ and make a management team more dynamic and successful in their individual and collective roles.

However, it is not just technology that is making the modern workforce more dynamic.

Flexible working hours and remote working are just some of the new ways in which the workforce is operating today.

Rebekah continues: “Mobile and flexible working is no longer about working from home. Rather, it’s about giving employees the right tools and technology to work out how and where they will be most productive. New collaboration technology may also be required, such as video conferencing services and interactive whiteboards, which enable teams in different locations to collaborate seamlessly.”

Through technology, whole management teams can keep in contact anywhere on the planet at their own leisure. Open forums where teams can ask questions and gain valuable feedback on a regular basis can make a leader seem more present and approachable for advice.

Understanding the workforce

Another recent development within the modern workplace is the rise of the influence of millennials.

Many of this generation are now starting to take positions of seniority in the majority of businesses, so knowing how individual members of your team operate is vitally important. Generational gaps in management are becoming common and understanding their needs as leaders of their own teams is needed if the overall vision of the company is to succeed.

Georgina Andrews comments: “It is important to be aware of what millennials expect from the workplace, the psychological contracts they develop and their need to identify meaning and purpose. Some of the responses required are unsurprisingly similar to what managers and leaders should have already been addressing – trust, communication, talent management and responsible behaviour.

“Failure to integrate and engage millennials could lead to skills shortages and have a negative impact on business growth and succession planning.”

Dragons’ Den star and prominent investor Sarah Willingham agrees with this sentiment, and as businesses accept more millennials into this type of role, then more must be done to give them the platform to drive the company forward.

She comments: “I don’t think the characteristics of a leader have changed, but the environment within which we operate changes all of the time and we need to adapt. Leaders must be self-aware decision makers, that are strong, passionate and inspirational. This hasn’t changed. 

“However, today we communicate in a different way than we used to and we need to use the tools available to us to reach our audience in a way they want to be reached. The millennials want open and approachable leaders.”

It’s not just satisfying the millennials in this role that will lead to a high performing team, but all generations – all of which are taking advantage of new age working life and the technology afforded to them.

Joe Crossley comments: “I don’t think the core principals of business will change for any generation, but communication methods and delivery models will certainly change in the future. In terms of expectations of millennials, it’s always good to have ambition, however, in my view the leaders who tend to get the most respect from their teams tend to be the ones who have rolled up their sleeves up and shown commitment and drive to progress. I wouldn’t want that to change for any generation.”

What can you do?

Middle management is a key element to keeping a business ticking over and stimulating growth, regardless of their generation.

Keeping them up-to-date with the latest management tools and training is important to keep ahead of the competition.

Rebekah explains how this can lead to a step change at a company. She comments: “Encouraging and empowering staff to adopt new processes may require training. The availability of a broad range of different courses can also instil a culture of continuous improvement and help to unlock a ‘growth mindset’.”

Joe echoes these thoughts, as giving the right training and support can lead to a high performing middle management team.

He concludes: “Having a training and development plan is key to any business and should run alongside corporate and commercial plans.

“Training and development ensure that staff feel valued and gives them reassurance and clarity around the future of the business. An effective training and development plan should enable staff to grow and evolve with an organisation.”

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