MT EXPERT: Middle managers have feelings too

Open University Business School's Alex Wright argues that when it comes to strategic thinking, middle managers' input is vital.

by Alex Wright
Last Updated: 16 Oct 2014

According to BBC Radio 4 series The Invention of the Manager, there are five million managers in Britain. Logic dictates that most will be middle managers, the essential backbone of organisations across all sectors.

Attitudes have changed over past decades, argued Lucy Kellaway in the series - from gentle fun-poking in the form of sitcoms like Terry and June and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, to public misunderstanding aided by increasingly impenetrable management-speak and downright distrust because of corporate failures - and worse.

But it's the attitude of senior managers, those who devise corporate strategy, which should change. Middle managers are excluded from strategy meetings and have little if any  input into its formulation. But strategies developed with middle managers’ contributing from the start can be more rigorous, robust - and most importantly, relevant. The myth senior managers are strategic thinkers and middle managers the implementers needs debunking. But that isn't the only one...

Myth 1: Middle managers should focus on operations while senior managers concentrate on strategy

Strategy is a high status activity. It's taken for granted that senior managers are ‘natural strategists’, while middle managers are natural implementers’. When a middle manager is promoted to senior manager, it's assumed their natural makeup changes and they somehow become competent and happy strategists.

My experience suggests middle managers actually take the strategic lead in their organisations. Traditional views of strategy saw formulation and implementation as separate, yet we've known for some time that strategy is just as likely to emerge as it is to be planned and executed. Emergent strategy is most likely to evolve through middle managers than those at the top.

Myth 2: Middle managers enjoy uncomplicated relationships with both senior managers and their staff

This comes from the idea that the relationships middle managers have as are fixed, stable and functional: vertical relationships with their bosses and with their staff, horizontal relationships with other middle managers. In my experience middle managers have complex relationships - some stable, some transient, some clear and some very unclear. In many organisations middle managers are as likely to speak with customers, suppliers, stakeholders, trade associations and professional networks as they are with immediate colleagues.

Myth 3: Middle managers have little contact with external management consultants

This is perpetuated by those who write about management consultancy. The consultant/client relationship is often depicted as involving organisations, rather than people. But once a contract is struck, consultants spend more time with middle managers than they do with senior managers.

I have seen examples where the consultant relationship with an organisation is passed down from senior manager to middle manager to get the work done. Similarly, I have seen a consultant relationship emerge and strengthen with a middle manager before being presented up to senior managers. I have been told by consultants that they can only really be honest about the issues they have encountered with middle managers because in their view, senior managers only want good news (another myth?).

Myth 4: Middle managers only implement strategy because they don’t want to do anything else

This relates to Myth 1, but the difference is in the assumption that middle managers don’t want to think or act strategically. This portrays strategy as conventionally implemented after strategic decisions have been made. It suggests senior managers identify themselves as strategists, while middle managers see themselves as implementers.

My research suggests middle managers can be strategists. I have seen situations when senior managers are not active strategists, when they are too busy doing other things to think and act strategically.

When this happens an organisation can experience a strategic void. It is middle managers, that much-maligned breed, who can step into the breach and fill this void and they do it by drawing on whatever
is at hand to fashion effective and relevant strategies.

Middle managers are not the problem, more likely they are the solution - and organisational processes
should be developed that help rather than hinder them.

- Alex Wright is a lecturer in strategic management at The Open University Business School

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