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A lot of time is spent analyzing leadership and its effects on corporate performance. Leadership at the top is important for direction and vision, but it’s the middle that makes up the majority of the organization and can have the biggest impact on the day-to-day work. It’s also the middle management that receives the least amount of scrutiny. Companies tend to keep the closest eye on entry-level employees and those at the top of the org chart, but bad behavior of people in between can go unnoticed.
Why watching the middle matters
There are close to 11 million people in the U.S. working in nonexecutive middle-management roles. From a numbers perspective, that’s a lot of people — and it represents the backbone of many organizations. Since these aren’t the green talent, the assumption is that they have some experience and know-how to do their jobs. However, this may not actually be the case.
Unfortunately, middle managers can often find themselves promoted into roles for which they aren’t really prepared, but because they’ve settled into their careers, they don’t invest the time in learning how to improve. This can be compounded by a lack of accountability. These people have been around the industry and know how to talk the talk. Without someone really looking into their performance, they probably have a perfectly logical explanation for why projects are behind, why that key hire quit or why their numbers aren’t quite where they should be.
What can go wrong
What’s the harm of a little deadweight in noncritical roles? Everyone has an off day, week or quarter. This article is not addressing the regular ups and downs of life that can impact someone’s work, but rather the people that hide in the fat of an organization and drag everyone else down with them. These people can be extremely dangerous for internal culture as they are showing new employees what behavior is acceptable. If they are a little mean in every e-mail they send to their subordinates, that becomes the model for that position. Blame and aggression are not anything someone will admit to, and upper management will likely never see, but they will be the key factors that impact how employees feel leaving the office at the end of the day.
There are also external relationships that can be harmed by a neurotic middle layer. Most of the direct contact that vendors, professional associations and industry event organizers have is often with the middle of organizations. If they walk away feeling dismissed, then opportunities and connections will dry up. The best vendors in a space are often highly sought after by competitors, but sometimes the money isn’t worth the trouble of having to work with someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. Short-term, this might not be a problem. Long-term, this can mean a loss in customers, organizations not wanting to invest, and a smeared reputation simply because a middle manager couldn’t manage relationships with care.
Related: 3 Signs That Managers, Not Employees, Are the Problem With Performance Management
How do you know whether this is happening within your organization? There is the obvious poor performance signal, but as I said previously, it can be hard to tell what is an excusable low for a normally high performer. The real red flags lie in how they respond to issues. Anger or frustration can be used as a method to hide a lack of knowledge. If a manager responds, “I can’t believe you don’t know how to do this!” or “It’s so obvious!” without offering an explanation, saying what the issue is or following up to provide training, then you’ve got a problem. For example, if they scoff at someone else for not knowing something, but then can’t provide any explanations themselves, it may well be because they don’t know and are hoping no one finds out. Good managers don’t use anger to mask ignorance.
Another important signal that a middle management employee is out of their depth is a high vendor turnover. If a middle manager just can’t seem to find anyone who can deliver on their expectations, then their expectations may be unrealistic (and again, this is likely because they don’t understand their industry or their role). If the vendors are always disappointing a manager and the new teams are constantly being brought in but performance never improves, it might not be the vendors that are faltering. This is a red flag that the person managing the vendor relationship may be failing to communicate the company’s vision to others. Especially if you are working with a vendor that has a track record of success and is delivering quality work for others, they probably aren’t just phoning it in for your project. They are probably doing the best they can with a bad middle manager.
How to fix a slumping middle
If these red flags are popping up in your organization, take time to review what’s happening in the middle. Any professional should seek to continue to grow throughout their career. Even if someone is perfectly happy in their role and doesn’t aspire to climb the ladder any farther, they still need to keep current on best practices and new techniques to stay competitive. Make it part of the corporate culture that no one is exempt from yearly skill refreshers and employees won’t take it personally (or as a sign of poor performance) if they are asked to participate in regular training. This attention to the middle takes away the assumptions that can lead to trouble and damage reputations long-term.
Related: Here’s How Google Trains World-Class Managers (Using a Bit of Data Science Helps)
High turnover costs companies talent, time and money. It can cost employers 33 percent of a worker’s annual salary for an employee to be replaced, and it can cost up to $15,000 to replace an individual with a median income of $45,000 a year. Every time that an individual leaves due to mismanagement, or that a vendor gives up on trying to help, or that an industry contact walks away with a bad taste in their mouth, a negative perception of the company builds. An unchecked middle can eventually make all the essential functions of the business (recruiting, raising capital, maintaining productivity, etc.) harder to carry out as a whole, which will make it difficult to recruit. Maintaining vigilance for employee engagement outside of new hires and the very top of the organization will keep the core of your company strong.
Related: Reduce Turnover of Hourly Workers With These 6 Tips