HR must engage middle managers

Middle managers are often the most challenging to influence
By Darlene Carter
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/25/2003


n the the federal public service, departmental senior leadership is excellent at championing the many change agendas that have been launched in recent years. However, HR professionals are relied upon to influence members of the workforce to embrace strategic recommendations.

While HR has the support of senior leadership in the departments, it is the managers who are often the most challenging to influence. There are three groups of managers: action-oriented, apathetic and atrophied.

The action-oriented managers see the full picture and are willing to get involved in influencing change. These are the folks who sit on the committees, get their people involved, communicate effectively and are able to articulate the vision for the organization. They understand that it is necessary to work together towards a common goal, and they find the time and energy to participate. They identify barriers to success but work diligently to overcome the barriers in order to meet the goals of any project. They participate in managers’ networks. I celebrate these individuals but also worry for them, because over time many have the potential to burn out or become atrophied.

The apathetic managers appear to not care either way if the agenda moves forward. They have an aura of indifference about them, which often trickles down to their staffs. They come to work everyday, do the job that is required of them according to their prescriptive work descriptions and then go home. They do not make the links to HR’s plans to enhance the workplace, alleviate some of the workload and improve the well-being of the workforce. These managers are troublesome because they portray an ambience of just not caring. They tune out to new ideas, and their staffs often suffer or become mirror images of them.

The atrophied managers are those who over time waste away. They once were the action oriented movers and shakers who had great ideas and championed new initiatives. They have become eroded and emotionally emaciated. They often speak of being misused by the organization. Some have suffered lack of recognition, some burn out, while others just give and give until they waste away. These are the most worrisome of managers. They believe in the organization’s values, mission and vision, but they just do not have the energy necessary to create an environment where change is celebrated. These managers are worn down. They can no longer stimulate employees to seek opportunities for challenges, simply because they do not have the necessary fuel to burn the torch of change.

In the daily work of an HR professional, moving forward agendas that highlight the need for changes requires commitment from these three groups of managers. It is at times an overwhelming challenge to encourage people to participate in the groups, committees and teams that are necessary to move a plan forward. The need exists for champions, as well as all members of the organization, to see how they fit into the big picture for the future workforce. Manager’s networks that exist are extremely well adept at embracing these challenges and creating a culture of support for all managers.

The fear is that eventually HR managers may become atrophied managers. They are often viewed as the Pollyannas of the organization. For the most part, they truly believe in the work they do. They find their work challenging, stimulating and exciting. However, many appear to be frustrated with the pace at which things happen, and the apathetic and atrophied managers whom they are required to deal with everyday.

Senior leaders can assist in tackling these challenges. They can initiate an accountability framework that makes all managers responsible for ensuring the sustainability for the future workforce. Their presence on committees, at events, on project teams, could certainly add to the success of departmental HR plans. By demonstrating leadership at its optimum, they have the ability to motivate or re-motivate those who don’t have the energy or trust to get on board.

HR’s capacity for coping is waning, and at times the stress becomes unbearable. We are cognizant of these effects personally and have made positive steps to alleviate some of the influential factors. HR professionals continually work at “selling or marketing” our HR plans. We work diligently with our HR colleagues and management partners to help everyone see how he or she fits into the organization, and we lean on those who are willing to work together for the betterment of the organizations. Our heightened sense of awareness regarding the effects of overwork, apathy and atrophy helps us recognize that the need for HR plans that address issues such as workload, management development and leadership. It is a sincere hope that HR’s optimism, commitment and enthusiasm, as exhibited by many of our existing management and senior leadership cadres, will overcome the apathy and atrophy that currently exists in some pockets of our organizations.

Darlene Carter is a formation human resource business manager, with MARLANT (Maritime Forces Atlantic), the Armed Forces, in Halifax.

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