Mid-level Managers: Don’t Eliminate Them, Invest in Them!

Scott Blanchard




The drive for flatter, leaner company structures, process automation, and the breaking down of hierarchies may seem to threaten the role of the mid-level manager in today’s organisations. But research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies makes the case that the most successful organisations are those in which senior leadership sees real value in strong mid-level leadership capabilities.

Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • Middle managers are the linchpin between senior management and employees.
  • Middle managers are the cornerstone of both the organisation’s strategic initiatives and the execution of those initiatives—they are the people who get things done. What’s more, they interpret and build out organisational strategy into actionable plans.
  • Middle managers communicate and collaborate across the organisation. They balance current operational demands while positioning the organisation for long-term success.
  • Middle managers encapsulate the organisation’s values through their behaviour and knowledge of its processes. They personify and embody the culture of an organisation.

Mid-level managers are also the primary driver of employee engagement. Research by the Gallup organisation consistently shows that 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores can be correlated back to managerial performance. Combine this with the fact that leaders at this level have direct reporting relationships with a large majority of the people who work in the company. Now ask: Why would senior leaders want to eliminate this function in their organisations?


A Different Approach

Instead of removing this crucial layer of management, our experience (which is considerable—tens of thousands of managers have been trained by The Ken Blanchard Companies over the past forty years) tells us the better response is to invest in this layer of management. Instead of leaving freshly promoted managers to their own devices to sink or swim as new managers, provide them with the skills and training to become the type of managers people refer to as their “best boss.”

Advanced training in three primary skills should be a part of the curriculum for new managers:

  1. Goal setting with an emphasis on partnering, motivation, and accountability

    Partnering means approaching goal setting as a conversation between manager and direct report. Motivation is making sure that the new manager’s work is meaningful, provides growth opportunities, and connects to organisational goals. Accountability is reaching an agreement on what needs to be accomplished, by when.

  2. Diagnosing the development level of team members

    Nothing demonstrates care and interest like a manager taking the time to explore a team member’s past experience and current capability to successfully achieve a task or goal. In today’s changeable work environment, people can find themselves working tasks they have some experience with, new tasks they’ve never done before, and old tasks they have done many times. A good manager needs to identify an individual’s development level on each agreed-upon goal in order to apply the third skill of great mid-level managers: matching their leadership style to the individual’s development level on a specific task or goal.

  3. Self-awareness and the ability to adjust leadership style to the needs of the employee

    All leaders have a favourite leadership style. Some are natural directors. Others are natural coaches. Many favour a supporting style. A final group prefers a delegating style. The challenge is to apply the right style to the needs of the team member on a certain task or goal. A directing style is great for a beginner. A delegating style is good for someone with considerable experience with a task. A coaching or supporting style is perfect for team members with in-between skill levels. But Blanchard research has found that over half of managers apply the same leadership style for all team members in all situations regardless of the person’s skill level on a given task. This creates a lot of over-supervision and under-supervision, neither of which leads to optimal performance on the part of the team member.


Take Care of the Heart of Your House

I like to use the phrase “heart of the house” to describe the important role middle managers play in an organisation. A middle manager’s job is twofold: to get things done and also to manage people’s emotional relationships to their work, their company, and their coworkers. Middle managers set the tone for the workplace. If mid-level management is neglected, the result can be “heart trouble”—a sluggish, slow-moving organisation that doesn’t execute strategic imperatives very well. This is not only frustrating but also damaging to performance in today’s fast-paced business environment, which requires a lean and agile approach.

Strengthening the middle leads to better managers who are prepared to manage change, coach emerging leaders, and execute the strategic vision of the organisation. Now more than ever, senior leadership must not only engage with their people but also invest in their people.

It’s important to take a foundational approach when helping managers develop skills. The goal is to provide a framework managers can use to guide performance. This includes how to effectively set goals, how to provide day-to-day coaching and support, how to engage in a partnership with direct reports, and how to have effective discussions around performance.

Leadership is about getting things done with and through people. Don’t eliminate the important function of mid-level management in your organisation—invest in it!

The Ken Blanchard Companies®

If you wish to learn more, please listen to Scott Blanchard exploring how L&D can help organisations succeed by focusing on operational leadership development.