In any transformation programme, it’s vital that leaders put people first and create lasting impact. But within these overall imperatives, there’s one key success factor that’s all too often overlooked. It’s the need to understand and address the managers in the “squeezed middle”.
Who are these people? In a nutshell, the squeezed middle is managers who are caught between the vision set by leadership and the actual execution carried out by junior staff. During transformation efforts, these individuals face special challenges that demand specific support from both their leaders and their reports – and which, if unaddressed, can cause burnout, and risk the success of the transformation.
Translating strategy into action
These high stress levels spring from middle managers’ unique role and position. As the link between top leadership and the workforce on the ground, they’re charged with translating strategy into action plans and delivering on the plans.
To do this, they must balance expectations from above (deliver more with less, deliver faster, in a leaner organisation) and from below (staff want to work flexibly, have pay rises and career opportunities, may be resistant to change). They may also need to balance the pressures of other change agendas and day-to-day business operations.
And given the possibility of headcount reductions from the transformation, they must do all of this while managing uncertainty about the future of their own role and their team’s.
Why the squeezed middle mustn’t be ignored
Hardly surprising, then, that the squeezed middle get stressed. Transformation leaders must recognise this and respond appropriately – or face real potential problems.
Why? Not only do the middle management layer play key roles across the programme as workstream leads, SMEs and so on, they’re also critical for communicating downwards and keeping transformation goals aligned with day-to-day activities. If they’re not engaged or informed properly, the results can include miscommunication, misunderstanding, resistance to adoption, and attrition – all impacting the success of the transformation.
Conversely, supporting the middle correctly – especially on multi-year transformations – can bring big upside benefits. These include readier change adoption, higher employee morale and engagement, and enhanced learning and career opportunities for all staff, enabling them to gain new skills and progress their careers both during and beyond the transformation.
Overcoming the challenges
Our experience shows that transformation leaders can support the squeezed middle effectively through an eight-part action plan. Here are the elements:
1. Clear governance framework – Ensuring governance is widely communicated and not overly burdensome, providing critical guardrails and tolerances for empowerment.
2. Good lines of communication – Sharing transformation purpose and goals widely, while also providing progress updates and channels for feedback.
3. Recognition and empowerment – Acknowledging middle managers’ critical role, and empowering them to deliver against objectives as they see best. Incentivising them with autonomy and decision-making authority can be even more effective than offering financial compensation.
4. Support and training – Providing new skills to lead teams through change, by offering formal training or a carefully-managed number of ‘stretch roles’ supported by leadership coaching.
5. Career development and progression – Clarifying for managers how the transformation will enable their career progression – thereby incentivising them to stay and giving them ‘skin in the game’ for its success.
6. Leadership mentoring and peer networks – Enabling managers to share best practice and learn together.
7. Involvement in planning and decision-making – Middle managers’ operational insight and awareness of their team’s skills help to create realistic plans.
8. Acknowledgement and mitigation of additional efforts – Recognising hard work and providing temporary resources to reduce the strain, for example during period of dual running or learning about new tools and processes.
A powerful enabler
Caught between competing priorities, the squeezed middle can become a problem in any transformation. But with the right support, recognition, empowerment, training and communications, the middle layer can be turned into a powerful enabler of success. Our eight steps can help.
Get in touch today to find out how we can help you succeed in your transformation.