Are Your Middle Managers Talking the Talk?

Preserve company culture and improve communication between leadership and employees by focusing on the connective tissue of your organization — managers.

Middle managers continuously prove their worth in large, global companies where communication disconnects on the local level are common. When telephone lines break down, middle managers are there to bridge the gap between top business managers and the employees.

“Middle managers are like the connective tissue in an organization,” said Andrea Lee, author of “We Need to Talk.” “Without them, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

This delicate job requires advanced communication skills and a commitment to company culture and values — development that learning leaders should but don’t always deliver. When managers are neglected, it creates disconnect between higher levels of leadership and employees on the ground. Without the right kind of communication, company culture starts to breakdown as well.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames, member of the Legal Research Network Advisory Services Practice, said ignoring middle manager growth and development is dangerous. Top brass miss out on unseen potential by not using middle managers as communicators, liaisons and leaders.

Middle managers “have their finger on the pulse on how things are playing out from a practical standpoint on a local level,” Hames said.

But without the right support, these managers will not be motivated or inspired to be better leaders. “We’ve done a disservice to middle management — even the word middle management is uninspiring,” Lee said. “And how do you inspire? Are you playing to win or playing not to lose?”

Lee said playing to win — taking risks, showing initiative and taking ownership of the job — are some of the most important steps for middle managers to take. “Playing not to lose” perpetuates stagnation, not growth.

An LRN Global Ethics Survey conducted in March 2015 polled 140 companies from a variety of professional fields. Of those companies, 83 percent said company culture is the most important influence on creating ethical outcomes for the public, meaning clients and consumers. Therefore, for middle managers to lead and inspire, they must learn and promote company culture and values.

According to Lee, one of the most important goals is stay ahead of difficult employee conversation. Middle managers have such a unique pulse on the business that they should be able to foresee difficulties and proactively address them. Addressing these conversations preemptively rather than avoiding them can minimize a larger problem or avoid the conflict all together.  

Actually having these conversations is an entirely different ball game, however. Lee suggests learning leaders encourage middle managers to ask the following questions:

  1. “Where are you now?”
  2. “Where do you want to go?”
  3. “How do you want to get there?”

This three-step model allows employees to fully articulate their goals and thoughts, and it gives middle managers ways to frame a productive conversation.

Another important communication tactic is learning the art of saying “no.” Most employees don’t refuse work or say no to their bosses, which can create overextended workloads, stress and ultimately an ineffective system.

Middle managers “need their development, coaching and simulation,” Hames said. “This is not about making sure managers are experts in compliance; it’s more about putting the most influential person at the helm of starting a dialogue.”

With the right type of managerial development, companies will start to see a variety of positive results. These outcomes take time and hard work.

“People are more comfortable in speaking up. There is better collaboration, people are more likely to not hoard information but to share information and collaborate,” Hames said. “The third top result we tend to see employees are more likely to take ownership of the success of their work force culture. They feel like they’re a part of shaping the story.”