Helping Middle Managers Step up into their True Organisational Leadership role by Sue Young

I originally wrote this blog in November 2015. In re-visiting it, the core material holds well. I just want to add in the proviso that the role of senior managers is critical, of course, in enabling middle managers to step up in their organisational leadership contribution. In their roles of mentor, role model, coach, developer and direction-setting, senior managers have the opportunity to create the culture, ‘space’ and an environment that actively supports managers at all levels in taking up their leadership role and contribution. As senior manager coaches we may need to be drawing our clients’ attention towards the potential leadership contribution of the managers underneath them, and exploring how they can be encouraging that.

Particularly in times of rapid change middle manager effectiveness is central to organisations achieving the sustainable changes they seek. Although senior managers are responsible for setting the overall direction and mood of an organisation, how successful that is depends on that direction being taken down and through the organisation.

Middle managers have come in for a great deal of criticism in research where ineffective day to day line management is the most frequently found reason for de-motivation, lack of engagement and poor performance.

I have seen directly the negative impact poor line management can have - for example:

  • micro-management

  • undermining behaviours that leads to

  • loss of direction,

  • loss of self belief and

  • eventual drain of self confidence, even in the most capable people.

I have also seen the positive power of when middle managers step up and take up their leadership role with resulting individual and organisational performance knock on effects that benefit performance and motivation of the whole team.

Middle managers are the real leadership glue in organisation. Their true added value in organisations is not always appreciated and often undervalued. If this is the case then it is possible for their role to not add any value and be seen as a ‘ non role ‘ – at worst getting in the way.

From my direct coaching and facilitation experience what I want to capture here is the positive contribution middle managers, at their best, bring to their organisations.

Middle managers potentially have the strategic perspective of being able to connect the bigger organisational picture, to the realities and pressures on the ground that any strategy or plan has to address. This knowledge is potentially their source of real added value contribution- if they recognise it, of course.

Middle managers often find themselves in a position of being expected to lead and maintain staff morale, where the direction is unclear, and their personal future is just as uncertain as the people for whom they are meant to be providing leadership.

The early stages of their role:       in early stages of their middle management role, and possibly as a remaining style issue, middle managers can find it difficult to let go of the 'doing' operational mind-set.  It is only when they have the confidence and perspective to step back and see the need, can they really let go of the day to day. It helps them make this shift when they see more clearly what they want to be doing in their bigger leadership role. Only then do they engage more meaningfully in the true leadership value they can bring. For example are they passing on their knowledge of the bigger context and translating it in terms that will carry meaning for their people? Then to help them take that perspective into their work, making the day to day judgement calls that need to be made on the ground.

Pressures during the on-going role:          There’s the on-going particular pressures of being in the ‘in-between’ layer between top decision makers and the operational level that delivers the service or product to the end users. More middle manager roles today do not have a team reporting to them but rather are accountable for achieving organisational objectives through others, over whom they have no direct authority. Unless they are amongst the minority fortunate enough to have an enlightened manager who readily passes on information and their intelligence about the bigger picture and overall direction. The most effective middle managers today are proactive in building their own strategic picture, intelligence and wider network of relationships and sources of information.

The best managers eventually lead their teams, and those they seek to influence, in a highly collaborative way. They use times of uncertainty to encourage fresh thinking and ideas in the team, and with colleagues across the organisation, about how ways of working can be evolved and how resulting delivery can be improved. They recognise that the core fundamentals of what they are seeking to deliver to users or customers do not change, and they do not lose sight of these fundamentals and represent this reality with their people.

Managing and holding these kinds of tensions to do with change is probably one of the middle managers most valuable contributions in times of uncertainty. The reality is that ‘them’ up the chain do not have definitive answers either. They know the overall direction but do not have all the answers. Sometimes this is not conveyed in the ways some senior managers behave! Once they have a clearer sense of the overall direction managers can best judge for themselves what is most likely to be changing, and most importantly, reminding others of the fundamental purpose and needs, what is unchanging and is within their control.

They are in the powerful position of often need to be the translators of the pronouncements put out by senior management that can sound very general and lacking with regard to the big question for most people ‘what does this mean for me?’

Line managers who are honest and open and there for their people can make a massive difference. They can step in with their personal ‘take’ on the overall message and what it means in terms that will make sense to their people. In reality what is the clear direction here for us, even if the detail of the ‘how’ is at this point unclear? It is our job to develop and craft the ‘how’ in our area of the business.

The Personal challenges – and where Coaching can add real value:   The middle manager probably has the greatest impact with their behaviour and the tone they set.

  • Are they true to themselves, open and genuine?o

  • Do they treat their team members and collleagues with respect?

  • Do they disclose their feelings selectively and appropriate to the situation?

  • Do they know and share their personal values that shape their leadership approach and are they consistent with this?

  • How do they deal with failure?

  • Do they attempt to cover up and bluff their way out or are they open – we did not get it right this time; what is important is the learning we take from this experience...

  • And do they follow this up in wanting to work with the team to understand and get to the bottom of what happened and why?

  • Not to play the ‘blame game’ but to learn for the future

Coaching middle managers to do more coaching:          As well as ensuring on-going ‘business as usual’, engaging their team in continuous development and improvement in delivery of on-going service, middle managers can lead in the tone and culture they set in their leadership approach.

Part of the main purpose of middle managers, as line managers, is to support the continuous learning and improvement of their team, both individually and collectively. At an individual level this will mean treating everyone as an individual with different strengths, working with them flexibly according to their needs. To do this well can be highly personally demanding, particularly when the individual is very different in style and strengths to them. Of course this requires a coaching approach! At a team level it will be ensuring regular meetings don’t deteriorate into low level ritual but find space for keeping review of bigger priority issues, and generating fresh thinking about longer term focus and ways of working. If managers are in a role where they have no direct authority, they have to influence decision makers. A coaching approach can be an important part of this!

Middle Managers role in  ‘coaching’ their seniors:          Finally middle managers are a conduit of valuable information and challenge and support upwards. It can take courage to feed back on what is not working well with policies that have been set higher up.

The best managers always look to make the best of a situation but they see it as part of their responsibility to feed back to the bigger organisation the real information on what is working and not working. This, together with their thinking about how to approach the issue, with recommendations on how best to progress.

They also need to be informing the Centre of changing trends their people are picking up on. While they largely delegate to their people they are sure to want to keep in close touch with what is happening on the ground. For example one of my clients maintains a few selective direct customer relationships to ensure they keep their hand in, and do not lose their first hand experience of the challenges and issues on the ground.

Coaching creates vital space for middle managers:        Managers are busy people who can get so caught up in the ‘doing’ and do not take the time out to think about themselves and their approach. They may take time out to consider a particular problem they face. However it can take some good quality coaching conversations, to help managers be more explicitly aware of what it is they do that contributes to their success, and areas they can best seek to 'stretch' themselves to develop their leadership effectiveness. Of course, as coaches, part of our role is to help middle manager clients broaden and deepen their self awareness and perspectives on their own particular context, and find their own unique leadership approach and contribution. A definite Life Journey, on which we are only companions for a brief part.

So, as a coach, how and what are you adding to middle managers’ true leadership contribution and potential?


Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. A report to government – David MacLeod and Nita Clarke (2012)

CIPD Research Report: Creating an Engaged Workforce (January 2010)

The Empowered Manager, Peter Block (1987)