Is your middle management holding you back?


It is true that the very best leaders don’t make all the decisions; they don’t have all the ideas. Instead, they inspire and empower, unleashing the energies of their people to supercharge growth and performance.

middle management holding you back

But the inspirational model of leadership is hardly guaranteed to succeed, not least because some people don’t want to be inspired. Particularly in larger companies, this tends to happen not on the front line, but in the middle of the organisation, where a kind of permafrost can develop, a resistance that can blunt the sharpest of your strategies or change initiatives.

This can be a particular challenge for inspirational CEOs, who don’t like to meddle or dictate, and who realise that doing so could undermine the culture of empowerment they are trying to create. Yet doing nothing is clearly not an option, unless you’re happy for the status quo to remain indefinitely, or to allow other people to dictate the pace and the outcome of your business strategy.

Chipping away at this permafrost requires understanding how it forms. You may be tempted to assume that middle managers themselves are the problem: poor managers of people, unwilling to allow frontline workers the freedom to flourish, jealously guarding their fiefdoms, believing they know better than the senior management how the business really works or simply being too lazy to make the effort to change, which admittedly is often substantial.

Sometimes this will be true, but this does do the middle manager – and yourself, presumably, if you hired them or decided to keep them – a great disservice.

So why might they be resistant?

Nothing ever changes here….

Managers don’t necessarily resist your ingenious change initiative because there’s something wrong with them.

Maybe, their experience of working at the company may have convinced them that senior management is full of bright ideas, but never follows through with it, meaning they’ve learned that it’s not worth more than going through the motions because nothing really changes….

Lack of Bandwidth

Workload could be a factor too. If leadership has allowed middle management to be overworked, and not created a culture where they can push back without fear of reprisal, then they simply may lack the bandwidth for change while still carrying out their day-to-day duties. Why raise a hand if the consequences could be detrimental.

Wrongly incentivised

There can be all sorts of other legitimate reasons. For example, their incentive structure may not have updated to reflect the change in your strategy; it may in fact reward the status quo.

And what can you do about it?

Communicate your vision   

It’s possible that you haven’t sufficiently articulated the vision you have for the change you want to make. Communication can get lost through the permafrost, yes, but that could be because you were aiming your message at the front line, and not at managers.

How often have you spoken to your middle managers about what you’re doing and – crucially –  why? (see Simon Sinek) Particularly when you’re trying to push past inertia, you need to explain very regularly and clearly the reason that it’s a good idea. It’s not enough to say it is – you have to convince people, on both a rational and an emotional level.

Think of the story you’re trying to tell. If you ask middle managers to explain the change initiative or the vision you have for the business in their own words, what do they say? If they can’t articulate it back to you, then perhaps you need to revisit the narrative.

Involve them

Communication is more than just broadcast. Ask your managers for feedback. Maybe there are problems with your strategy that you haven’t actually considered, or at least concerns that you hadn’t realised were so strongly felt about why they don’t think it’s workable or a good idea.

Again, much of this comes back to having a culture of psychological safety and empowerment – the irony being that if you’re explicitly trying to change the culture to be safer and more empowered on the front line, then it’s possible your middle managers think the change is aimed at them, as though they were the problem. It’s unsurprising that they would resist.

Raise up champions and make them catalysts for change

When you talk to middle managers, you will find some are much more enthusiastic for what you’re trying to do than others. Give these people a role. Task them with communicating with their peers as well as the wider workforce. That way you can show that this isn’t something being done to people who work for you, but that at least some of them are actively involved.

You could, if needs be, bring in managers who ‘get it’ from the get-go, from the outside, but this has to be done delicately to avoid perpetuating an us-and-them culture.

Put up or Shut up!

Ultimately, you need to acknowledge that if you want to change direction or transform the business or just take it to the next level, you will need your middle managers on side. And that’s the way it should be – in great organisations, these people are engines of growth, not bureaucratic barriers to success.

But there’s only so much chipping away you can do. Sometimes, the permafrost just needs dynamiting. If some of your middle managers really aren’t willing or able to get with the programme, or at least try to engage with you, then they’re probably going to have to go and quickly!

If you’ve read your Machiavelli, you’ll know that it’s better to do this in one go rather than in dribs and drabs – it shows you’re serious, the negative effect on morale will ultimately be less, and it lets you draw a line under the matter and move onwards.

It needn’t undermine your approach to empowerment either – most people will understand that even an inspirational leader has to make hard decisions in the best interests of the business, and will ultimately appreciate the unity of purpose that emerges as a result.

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