Media and advocacy

The critical middle layer

2 February 2021, 
Sarah McCann-Bartlett


Organisations don’t always give enough credit to middle managers – the people dealing with the highs and lows of the workplace in real-time and keeping the operational wheels turning. Middle managers are some of the most important, influential people in our workplaces, yet we sometimes forget to take the time to stop and think about their impact.

More employers are seeing the value of putting people front and centre as they reset their approaches to work in order to continue delivering on their objectives and growing their business. This people-centric approach perhaps wasn’t so clear prior to the pandemic.

When we talk about HR making data-backed decisions, the data can be influenced by those sitting within the middle band. They have usually been with your company long enough to get a sense of what you do well and where improvements could be made, but by not sitting at a senior level, they are able to offer alternative perspectives that an executive or senior HR professional might not be privy to.

They also sit on the fringes of employees’ conversations, so they’ll have a good read on people’s pain points and frustrations. If you’re not looping middle managers into important organisational decisions, you could be missing out on a goldmine of useful data.

Another reason to get middle management buy-in is to take advantage of their social capital – they can help employees embrace new initiatives or they can be the impenetrable barriers that block change from flowing through your organisation.

In many cases, senior executives are too far removed from the nuances of team dynamics or important processes, so employees might be wary of opening up to them – middle managers can fill in the gaps for you.

So how can you utilise these people to the organisation’s advantage, and support them? By offering mentoring and training opportunities, and encouraging autonomy, middle managers can become your company’s biggest advocates. This becomes even more pertinent this year as organisations continue to implement small and large-scale changes in response to the shifting nature of work due to COVID-19.

How else can you develop these future leaders? First, look for the current gaps in their skills – for example, have they been involved in high-level strategy planning before? If not, you can facilitate these learnings by connecting middle managers with those in the executive team to shadow, so they become familiar with how the business is run from the top level. One of our members, Liz Jamieson CPHR, dives into this in this month’s career tip. It outlines what are called ‘skip level meetings’ where employees have meetings with
the people two levels above them (see page 39).

Think of your organisation as a cake – if senior leadership is the top layer and HR is the binding agent, middle management is the key ingredient, the flour. It’s what will determine if your organisation rises or sinks.

Make sure you’re taking the time to develop, mentor and include middle management in  your plans this year. They’re your secret weapon in ensuring important change takes flight.