Why supporting your middle managers is the key to a more productive workforce

Middle managers are in a uniquely tough position in the organisational hierarchy. They are commonly caught between the strategic vision set by senior leadership and the operational realities faced by front-line employees, and as such must navigate the tension between needing to perform against operational targets and managing their people. Often these middle managers have been promoted due to being subject matter experts in their field but then have to shift their focus to getting the most out of their most valuable resources – their people which requires a very different skillset and mindset.

The very terminology of ‘performance management’ can have negative connotations, as it’s synonymous with formal PIPs (Performance Improvement Plans). In reality, it’s about developing people to be able to contribute positively to the organisation, and to adapt to our ever-changing world of work.

So, what challenges am I seeing among my clients?

Over the last few months, I have worked with a wide range of managers to help them develop their skills and confidence, and these are the five most common reasons why they find managing their team’s performance so tough:

  1. Time constraints:
    Middle managers are often overwhelmed with tasks, leaving little time for in-depth performance discussions. Providing meaningful feedback requires thoughtful reflection, which can be challenging when time is scarce.
  2. Emotional intelligence (EI):
    Giving constructive feedback demands emotional intelligence. Some middle managers struggle with addressing performance issues without damaging relationships or causing emotional distress, especially if they are now managing team members who used to be their peers.
  3. Fear of conflict:
    Middle managers may avoid tough conversations due to fear of conflict; they worry about damaging rapport with team members or facing resistance. This is particularly true when there is a performance pay related element, which often results in a blanket approach being applied which is viewed as unfair.
  4. Unclear expectations:
    When expectations are ambiguous, middle managers can find it hard to evaluate performance objectively. There is often unclear or misaligned direction from above in the reporting line.
  5. Lack of role modelling
    It is well known that the tone of an organisation is set at the top, so if the senior leaders are not leading the way and role modelling good performance management practices then it rarely embeds into the organisations culture.

So, knowing this, what can organisations do to support this important group of managers?

  1. Invest in training:
    Organisations should provide middle managers with training on performance management and effective feedback techniques, focussing on both their skills and confidence.
  2. Set clear expectations:
    Clearly define performance expectations, goals, and metrics on an organisational level, and support managers in translating them into meaningful goals for their area of responsibility.
  3. Structured process:
    Implement a performance management process that is about growth and development, including frequent one-on-one meetings that allow middle managers to address performance issues promptly and regularly recognise success. Create documentation to support the process.
  4. Use feedback frameworks:
    Implement structured feedback frameworks to guide conversations that help middle managers provide specific, actionable feedback that enables their people to learn and grow. Feedback should be balanced and focus on strengths as well as areas for improvement.
  5. Encourage peer learning:
    Create a platform for supporting each other through peer learning. Sharing experiences and best practices can enhance their feedback skills and help embed consistent performance management practices within the organisation.

A more engaged and productive workforce

Remember, middle managers play a crucial role in translating organisational strategy into action. By supporting them in ensuring their people are doing the right things, at the right time, and in the right place, you can create a more engaged and productive workforce. This results in greater organisational success which is surely a compelling enough reason to invest in making the process and practices work for your organisation!

Connor’s middle manager ‘toolkits’

From our wealth of experience supporting middle managers, we have compiled the 10 most common problems they raise to us. Download our 10 free practical toolkits for middle managers containing key tips and techniques based on these most common challenges, to better equip this highly important group of leaders with the tools they need to manage common pressures and excel in their role.

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