The middle management works in the junction of conflicts and tensions, in a key position with regard to problems and solutions – yet often far away from the core of organization-level discussions. The paradoxical features of the work of the middle management can be seen as clear observations in the Ph.D. thesis and in my work as an organization developer. This time, I will discuss leadership paradox number 3: involvement of management versus non-involvement of middle management.
So close and yet so far away
The middle management has to struggle in the hub of many conflicts. Specialist expect support, coaching and direction while the view to the big picture and vision of the organization is often blurred. Understanding of the strategy and vision guiding everyday work remains at the level of headings, and the connection to operational work does not become clear. Immediate supervisors experience their possibilities of taking part in organization-level discussions insufficient, making their own role and added value of supervisory work unclear.
In the worst case, leadership and building a culture of leadership are seen as something for the senior management alone – and the middle management as one-way messengers. An interesting perspective to this paradox is the fact that even though the middle management feels that they are not in the core of leadership, specialists largely interpret the culture of the organization through the actions of the immediate supervisors. They are close and yet so far away from the core of leadership!
Risk of incompetence lies in the matrix and networks
The phenomenon is emphasized in expert organizations in which operations are increasingly managed from matrix roles. Here, leadership is always divided in some way. The involvement of the middle management is challenged by the self-guiding role and work of their subordinates, with only some of the tasks given by the immediate supervisor. A complex and changing environment calls for swift reactions, and therefore conventional control-based leadership is not justified or even possible in many cases. The requirement for the supervisor being able to answer all questions and knowing the substance of their subordinates in depth is unreasonable in a community of specialists.
The non-involvement of the middle management is also complicated by "management override situations" in which a supervisor feels that he is uninformed and sidetracked by the management, a colleague or employees. If supervisor simultaneously feel that they have been excluded from organization-level discussions, they do not have a real-time view of the current situation and direction – nor arguments to their subordinates. In this case, the middle management must consider its contribution to the leadership of the organization in a new way. A key question is: What added value do I give to my employees – and the organization?
A combination of freedom, limits and coaching
The non-involvement of the middle management is not only the middle management's problem – and therefore the middle management cannot resolve it alone. The question is essentially linked to the way of seeing the key function of supervisory work adopted in the organization. Coaching-style supervisor work gives rise to discussion in organizations that pursue the utilization of people's potential, development of capabilities and therefore improving the performance of the individual and organization. Yet coaching requires a clear view of the big picture and one's own role.
If supervisors do not feel that they are playing a key management role, the role as a coach often remains thin. The solutions to the non-involvement of the middle management can often be found through clarifying the roles and rules of the game, by drilling into the following questions: Are the management roles clear and understood in the same way? Does the middle management participate sufficiently in organization-level discussions? And are we aware of each other's expectations and needs related to leadership?