Discussing The Role Of Middle Management
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During the 1980s and 1990s, in our increasingly global marketplace, downsizing and re-engineering became a common practice in business, eliminating much of the need for middle managers, cutting costs, speeding up decisions, and flattening organizational hierarchies worldwide. Middle managers began to be seen as unnecessary costs, easily replaced by displacing responsibility downward to their subordinates, and uncooperative, even having a negative impact on change.
While middle managers still exist today, they must still deal with the general notion that their responsibilities could be displaced – even though they are often among the more experienced and knowledgeable employees in a department or company. This paper compares three articles on the topic of middle management, and applies these scenarios and opinions to real-life situations that I have experienced.
Creating Change Intermediaries
Recent studies have started to reveal the importance of the middle manager’s role when an organization is experiencing change. In Balogun’s article “From Blaming the Middle to Harnessing its Potential: Creating Change Intermediaries” the author states that middle managers make a strategic contribution as a “change intermediary,” referring to their role during implementing strategy, or change implementation.
Two opposing points of view observe the middle manager – one views the middle manager as adding little value and resisting change, and the other views the middle manager as a pivotal part of implementing change in an organization.
Balogun discusses a study that was done on middle managers during a transitional year in an organization, including structural, operational, and cultural changes. From this study, it was found that as “change intermediaries,” middle managers fulfill four roles: undertaking personal change, helping others through change, implementing necessary changes in their department, and keeping the business going.
A simple and perfect example of when I have experienced a co-worker performing as a change intermediary occurred last spring at a new restaurant where I had begun serving. The restaurant was only about 6 months old when the owners began to discuss the current lax dress code, and decided to implement a more strict and professional dress with more rules and more limitations as to what the servers could wear at work. Obviously, this was met with some resistance from servers who had been working at the restaurant since day one, and the change implementation was passed down from the owners through the general manager, to the assistant manager, who was most in charge of ensuring that the changes were adhered to.
The assistant manager first undertook personal change by immediately adjusting to the new dress code, then helped other through change by gently reminding servers when their clothing was not in sync with the new dress code, and allowing a grace period for servers to buy new clothing and adjust to the new rules. Then, she implemented necessary changes in her department (the front end of the restaurant) by distributing a document outlining the specific changes to the dress code, and ending the grace period, so servers would have to adhere to the new rules. Finally, she kept the business going the whole time, as this took place over several weeks, and the front-of-house was still running smoothly and efficiently.
This assistant manager’s role was to transmit information down to us, the servers, from the owners and general manager. The owners lived in a different city and played a more omniscient role in day-to-day operations. While the general manager was usually present, he tended not to get involved in operational activities, such as micro-managing his servers. The assistant manager could easily have been eliminated, given the general manager’s constant presence, but her role was very important to take strategy from higher-level management down to the operating employees for change implementation. She also was able to take information from the server and restaurant level, and synthesize this information up to the general manager and owners, to alert them of ground-level issues in the restaurant that the general manager perhaps did not see because he doesn’t work the restaurant floor.
As a change intermediary, middle managers play an important role between the strategic plan being passed down from higher-level management, and the operation core, where the change is manifested.
Microdynamics of Inclusion
The structure and quality of communication systems in organizations is directly related to overall organizational cohesiveness. In Westley’s article “Middle Managers and Strategy: Microdynamics of Inclusion,” the author discusses the role of middle management in strategic processes. As in the previous article, the author discusses the inherent discontent among middle managers when they feel about they are being excluded from the organization’s strategic processes. When a middle manager feels excluded, there are many negative side effects – however, the exclusion of middle managers from “strategic conversation” is inevitable, and inclusion does not guarantee satisfaction.
In top-down management systems, which have bottom-up flows of communication, middle managers are capable of controlling the upward flow of information and expressing the opinions of lower management up to top management. In this way, middle managers have some influence in “strategic conversation,” and with proper research, a middle manager can be able to participate in these conversations with higher management.
For example, I have experienced this situation in retail situations when an assistant manager takes the initiative to recommend a certain candidate for a new sales assistant position. When the conversation begins between the assistant manager and hiring director, there can be some friction, because the assistant manager is outstepping her boundaries. However, when it comes down to the decision, the assistant manager has done her research, since she has been on the floor and spoken with the potential candidate, and therefore has valuable information to pass up to higher management when they are making strategic decisions, such as hiring and firing. In fact, that assistant manager even felt “included” in this strategic process or conversation, and concluded the conversation feeling energized and valued.
In the article, the author discusses the concept that when top management shares the common belief that middle managers provide value when they participate in strategic conversations, he/she will discover that the relationship that develops between them and middle management is more engaged and productive.
The Contribution of Middle Managers
Huy’s article “Emotional Balancing of Organizational Continuity and Radical Change: The Contribution of Middle Managers” is based on a study on how middle management deals with emotion-management of employees during times of radical change within organizations. The study yielded two opposing conclusions: the middle managers emotionally committed to personally championed change projects, and attended to recipients’ emotions.
The study revealed that low emotional involvement resulted in inactivity in the organization, but high emotional involvement without the use of proper emotional-management techniques, could be detrimental. Therefore, the pursuit of emotional balance and motivation is important for middle managers during radical change. It is only through this balance of emotionally committing to change projects and constant attention to employee emotions that middle managers can effectively lead their teams to the change project outcome.
For example, when I was in high school, the school division built a brand new high school and began the process of transferring all of the teachers, support, and students, as well as furniture, supplies, etc. into the new building. In the same year, there was a large change in administration at the top management level. For quite some time, stress and other emotions ran high, as the middle management administration in the new high school started to learn the processes of effectively operating a high school from scratch. During this time, it was extremely important that these middle-level administrators were emotionally involved in bringing about this radical change, as well as being attentive to the emotional balance of their employees – the teachers. The teachers were under a lot of stress to deliver what the students expected – and expectations needed to gradually be changed, as many processes and operations changed when they moved into the new building. Emotional balance was a key in bringing about healthy radical change in the organization