Caught between a boss and a workplace

Direct reports, meeting leadership’s needs are middle manager’s challenges
By Allison Christilaw and Doug Emerson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2011

Multi-level organizations can struggle for years with communication issues related to the expectations of employees and their responsibilities, only addressing them on an ad-hoc basis as major projects or new strategies require.

When an initiative or objective is eventually accomplished and “business as usual” resumes, communication problems are often forgotten or overlooked.

Over the long term, however, this is a recipe for business disruption, resulting in frustrated leadership, a confused workforce and management who are stuck in the middle, trying to balance demands from above and performance below.

Top leaders can struggle with the following questions:

• How do I communicate my, and the company’s, strategic objectives to managers?

• Who’s doing what to realize our objectives?

• Why don’t our teams work together more effectively?

And middle managers wonder:

• What exactly are my boss’s demands and expectations? How am I going to be managed?

• What’s the extent of my authority?

• How do I translate my boss’s demands into team objectives my group understands?

It’s possible to avoid these questions and struggle on but effective organizations must eventually find ways to address, not circumvent, issues of expectations and responsibilities. Otherwise, a culture of complacency can set in over time. This can lead to a lack of clear objectives, consensus, teamwork and strategic alignment. Ultimately, productivity and business performance will be affected.

Such an environment becomes increasingly difficult to change as these habits become more ingrained.

Leaders, middle management and HR professionals are all affected differently when roles and responsibilities are unclear, and each must contribute differently to right the ship.

Taking the lead

In complex organizations, leaders need to set out clear work parameters and expectations, and develop objective criteria to evaluate performance. This must be clearly communicated to managers.

It’s critical team members know the specific objectives they must deliver on collectively and exactly how their individual performance will be measured. When people perform well, accountability isn’t much of an issue. But when performance lags, specificity is critical. If responsibilities are subjective or shared rather than individually assigned, it becomes difficult to pinpoint problems.

The relationship between leaders and middle managers can be particularly challenging. A motivational clog in middle management can bring the whole process to a halt. Middle managers often find themselves receiving information at the same time as their reports. As a result, they feel undermined, as if they’re not a significant part of the management of the business. This can make them resistant to change and disrupt the flow of information and inspiration from leaders to work teams.

Leaders can bring middle managers on side by considering them in the communication process — addressing them separately and on different terms. When middle managers don’t feel blindsided or marginalized by new initiatives or directives, they can better leverage relationships with their own teams.

Managing in the middle

The middle manager is like a transformer on a power line, taking “high voltage” input from leaders and turning it into usable output for employees. Managers translate high-level directives into team-oriented metrics and objectives. But if the main line is cut, nothing happens, so middle managers must consistently press leaders to ensure an ongoing flow of communication.

If leaders take the initiative, this process tends to work relatively smoothly. However, sometimes middle managers are forced to take the initiative to clarify responsibilities. It’s a three-step communications process:

Plan with the work team: The middle manager meets with the work team to determine what they feel they are accountable for and how it should be measured.

Meet with the leader: The middle manager discusses the team’s work description with leaders to specifically determine expectations in terms of objectives and metrics, performance measurement criteria and the authority given to the manager to get things done.

Follow up with the team: The middle manager uses the above input from leaders and goes back to the team to outline a clear and comprehensive work plan, including objectives, milestones and responsibilities.

If this last step doesn’t happen, the manager becomes the problem.

When it’s working smoothly, the chain of responsibility and expectation runs from the C-level, through middle management and down through the ranks, so everyone along the line knows what to do, why they are doing it and how performance will be assessed. Alignment between corporate strategy and employee performance has been achieved.

HR’s role

If style or personality issues are involved, it can be very difficult for the middle manager to initiate communication and achieve results. HR support can help achieve top-to-bottom clarity and mutual strategic alignment.

The initial HR challenge depends on how HR is positioned within the organization. If HR professionals are seen as totally objective third parties, internal HR consultants can be extremely effective. Sometimes, however, it’s better to bring in a consultant who can navigate internal sensitivities in a completely unbiased fashion.

Often the problems relate to breakdowns in communication. Leaders and managers simply might not speak in the same terms or managers may feel their people just aren’t “getting it.” These are opportunities for HR to facilitate the conversations that have to happen.

HR professionals can typically point managers toward valuable tools such as incentive programs, a scorecard process and performance management processes.

Allison Christilaw is an associate partner and Doug Emerson is an executive advisor at Deloitte Canada’s human capital practice in Oakville, Ont. Allison can be reached at (905) 338-9333 ext. 228 or achristilaw@deloitte.ca and Doug can be reached at (905) 338-9333 ext. 225 or demerson@deloitte.ca.

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