Middle management: Australia’s forgotten talent?

Middle managers are often a key link between senior executives and employees on the ground, providing a conduit for business strategies and commercial goals.

Despite this important role, many Australian middle managers are lacking confidence and could be underperforming in their role, according to recent research.

A February 2014 study by the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) and Monash University showed middle managers are a productivity bottleneck in some organisations, largely because executives underestimate their impact.

Tony Gleeson, AIM general executive manager, said middle managers can “make or break” a firm and are crucial to successful change strategies.

“It's impossible to have a vibrant workplace culture and be a high achieving organisation, if your middle managers are under skilled and disengaged,” he explained.

“Too many middle managers are feeling ignored and unloved and that needs to change if organisations are to drive productivity and performance improvements.”

Middle management problems

AIM estimated there are 500,000 middle managers in the country, but many were ranked poorly in several skills categories by non-middle management colleagues.

In fact, 55 per cent of 1,898 employees surveyed by AIM and Monash University claimed middle managers at their organisation lacked communication, while 52 per cent were accused of having average or below-average people management skills.

Strategic influence and change management were considered their weakest capabilities, with 70 per cent and 69 per cent of workers respectively claiming middle managers were average at best in these areas.

The AIM research suggests middle managers need to be provided with leadership development opportunities to maximise their productivity in the workplace.

Middle managers themselves highlighted broken promises from senior executives as a problem, with 53 per cent claiming bosses have failed to meet expectations.

Over half also said their enterprises are not offering chances to get ahead in their careers. 

“It's clear from the findings of our survey research and follow-on focus group session that the role and responsibilities of middle managers deserve much greater respect in the Australian workplace,” Mr Gleeson said.

“Organisations need to ensure their middle managers are appropriately skilled and they must also give their middle managers the opportunity to show what they can do and measure them on their performance.”

Where are companies going wrong?

Improving middle management performance should be a key priority for organisations in order to effectively carry out strategic changes across operations.

A Hogan whitepaper, titled '4 Ways Companies are Failing their Middle Managers', highlighted crucial areas where businesses need to refocus their energy when tackling middle management issues.

1. Promoting the wrong people: The paper suggested organisations are putting the wrong people into middle management positions, while not effectively training the individuals they do promote.

2. Not training them: Most businesses concentrate their training efforts at the top and bottom ends of the management scale. In other words, extensive training is provided to C-suite executives and new managers, but those in the middle often miss out. 

3. Stressing them out: Furthermore, middle managers are in a difficult situation where they are given a lot of responsibility and must meet high expectations, but typically have very little power to effect change. This is a frequent cause of stress.

“That level of stress can lead to a huge increase in turnover, resulting in a skills gap most organisations aren't prepared to fill,” Hogan commented.

4. Letting them disengage: Lastly, businesses are too easily allowing middle managers to become disengaged, which lowers productivity and contributes to poor staff retention.

However, CEOs that identify these issues and tackle them effectively could experience a surge in performance by tapping into a valuable organisational resource.

Identifying the best managers, giving them the resources they require to complete their roles, and offering leadership development opportunities are all recommended.