Presss release: Middle managers have shown their value during the COVID-19 pandemic

The value of middle management as an arbiter and senior management was undeniable during lockdowns.

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown" goes Shakespeare’s line from ‘Henry IV Part 2, in which the Bard continues the story of the prince torn between lowly companions, who baptise him ‘Hal’, and his impending duties as monarch. In Shakespeare’s story, Hal treacherously cuts ties with his ‘inferiors’ to assume his leadership role.

In the modern workplace, middle managers are typically not the ones wearing the crown, but it’s widely accepted that, like Shakespeare’s Hal, they suffer a similar tug-of-war. They are caught between the demands of those they manage, and of those they report to, but unlike Hal, they have to stay true to both. As the “messy middle”, they are expected to code-switch between varied power relationships – now a leader, now a follower – and stakeholders, each camp with its own “relentless and conflicting demands”, as one writer put it.

What’s more, it’s not unusual for senior leadership to deploy middle managers as buffers or human shields between themselves and rank-and-file employees. As such, middle managers are particularly vulnerable to the disdain of their subordinates, argues David Sims in his paper, ‘Between the Millstones: A narrative account of the vulnerability of middle managers’ storying’.

As the book ‘Middle Management 101: Zen in the Art of Middle Management’ argues, a middle manager is “the most misunderstood, misdirected, misguided, poorly trained, and ‘hung out to dry’ member of our entire workforce”, despite being the “glue that keeps organisations together”.

Productivity block or critical human interface?

Middle managers have always been under scrutiny in organisations, their value always questioned. They are the ones said to be the major stumbling block in the way of productivity. Noted one ‘Forbes’ writer about their place in the 2020-and-beyond workplace, where senior managers can supervise employees through large online meetings: “That’s going to mean that the physical presence of managers will matter less and we’ll need less span-breaking managers of managers – middle managers.”

Little wonder then that when businesses looked at how best to cut costs in 2020 and flatten their hierarchies, middle managers often bore the brunt of job losses. This is not a new trend, pointed out participants in a McKinsey podcast: “The ranks of middle management have been under a 25-, 30-year assault,” observed one speaker.

Yet there’s a growing realisation that it also fell to middle managers to keep shaky ships afloat and clear of any icebergs during the COVID-19 pandemic. And they were asked to do so under far-from-ideal conditions.

COVID-19 showed that middle managers were invaluable in one particular regard. As the McKinsey podcast points out, middle managers offered what employees needed most in contexts where they were cut off from face-to-face engagements and work became about adopting more and more impersonal technology: the human factor. “It’s about real-time feedback delivered by a human. I think we’ve undervalued those elements, tried to systematise them away with data, with systems, with tools. Meanwhile, workers are asking for better leaders, better apprenticeships, better coaching.”

As employees adjusted to all the challenges of working from home, often with the threat of unemployment hanging over their heads, they needed empathetic leadership more than ever before. In my conversations with middle managers in South Africa, for instance, it was clear that the task of retooling and coaching workforces fell largely on their shoulders.

Before the pandemic, many employees didn’t have laptops of their own or ready internet connectivity, and had to be provided with both – at speed. Uncertainty and anxiety among teams was rife and managers had to focus on both the personal and the technical to get things done.

What matters now?

Back in 2003, leadership experts Henry Mintzberg and Jonathan Gosling coined what they called the five mindsets of a manager, articulating five key domains where a manager must operate well: Managing Self; Managing Change; Managing Relationships; Managing Context; and Managing Organisations.

Essentially these five mindsets empower managers with attitudes that allow them to manage themselves and change within an organisation, develop collaborative ways to work with employees, be aware of the varied cultures and customs of the many worlds they work in, and understand that they and their organisations are all part of a bigger system.

One can’t imagine a more relevant context for these mindsets than the COVID-19 world. For one, managers are having to embrace disruption and change. But perhaps more than anything else, middle managers are having to manage relationships with their subordinates within the varying contexts in which the latter find themselves: they have to show high levels of situational awareness and deep empathy. And this is likely to become the new normal. While the end of the pandemic may now be in sight, it is unlikely to be the last systemic and disruptive challenge that the world faces.

The place of middle managers within organisations will continue to be debated. But in the past 18 months, they have made a convincing argument for their irreplaceable role. Going forward, finding better ways to support this valuable tier of management, including by equipping them with the five mindsets, needs to become a greater priority in organisations.

As Bill Schaninger, Senior Partner at McKinsey says: “These roles should be coveted and nurtured and curated, not eliminated. If you want to eliminate something, eliminate tasks—tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic and don’t add value. But keep the role and curate it to help develop your next generation of leaders.”

| Brian Simelane is course convenor for the UCT Graduate School of Business Programme for Management Development in Johannesburg. UCT GSB courses are offered in Johannesburg at its executive training facility in Sandton as well as remotely.