Stuck in the middle with you – how middle managers can handle heavy traffic and changing scenarios

Stuck in the middle with you – how middle managers can handle heavy traffic and changing scenarios


About a decade ago, the finance company I was working for commissioned an audit that looked at how much email each layer of leadership received and how they engaged with it. The research sought to understand how well communications channels worked and how effective the preferred “cascade” model of leadership communications was working.

The results were stunning. In many cases, the middle managers were receiving double the amount of email when compared to their leaders and they had a whole lot less time and resources to manage the requests and directions that those messages contained.

This led to a targeted piece of work that provided planning and education tools to help middle managers see and prepare for upcoming events (such as results briefings, performance reviews and budgeting), in addition to training around communications and prioritization skills.

The other critical aspect to this work is the management of leader expectations in terms of both scale of items to manage and capability to deal with it. The tough part of being a middle manager is that often you need to have the strategic perspective of the leader but you also need to keep your operational “management” focus which is about getting the job done on time, on budget and in a way that keeps your frontline teams happy.

For this reason, I always take a great interest in the capability and duties of the middle management layer when assessing the health of any organisation. This critical juncture between strategy and operations is often the point where projects can succeed or fail and often the time is not taken to really engage and enable these people. The crazy thing is that these people will be leading your organisation in the next 5-10 years and if you don’t give them the support and capability to make things work well in your company, they will be well positioned to step up with one of your competitors.

So, with this challenge in mind, here are some tips on how to empower your middle managers, particularly when things are changing and you need their help the most.

1 – Understand the situation through a blend of analysis

Like my former client, you simply can’t rely upon anecdotal data to understand how much your middle managers need to process and how well they are able to receive, process and pass on critical information. So, have a closer look through a simple survey and follow this up with some workshops with a good cross section of your people that focuses on challenges and solutions.

If you can, complete some targeted and polite observations alongside and run some background analysis on effectiveness of your channels, including open and ‘conversion’ rates (to borrow a sales term). All of this data can be cross checked with your existing data on employee engagement and customer satisfaction to understand where some challenges may be affecting the middle manager and the people they intend to support or service.

The important thing is to engage them early and explain why you are having a closer look and how it will help them.

2 – Be clear on what’s required and how they can make it happen

Part of the challenge for middle managers is that the busy environment they work in can mean that they don’t have time to properly connect with the strategy and apply it to their work and team direction. For this reason, it’s critical for the leaders to discuss strategy or changes with this group and ask them to explain what it means to them and how they can apply it to their business operations. This type of exercise can highlight where there are disparities in their understanding and where the methods you are using to explain the strategy or the change could be improved. Don’t be precious about this step, have an open and proactive conversation that means you are getting the feedback now and not after your initiative has fallen flat.

The outputs from tip 1 and 2 can help you understand if your performance pipeline is really defined or it is open to organic interpretation. While organic activity can be helpful, you want to know where things are clear and where they could be further explained and from a workflow perspective, enabled. As Stephen Drotter says in “The Performance Pipeline”, when people show up for work, they should know what is expected of them and what standards should be met. “Management practices commonly used now don’t deliver role clarity. In fact, many practices confuse rather than clarify”.

3 – Proactively offer development to help them step up

You may have a standard development path in place for leaders in your company but it’s worth considering how much it develops capability to support big changes, to deal with ambiguity, to communicate well and to use healthy prioritization to keep the emphasis on the right elements. Many leadership programs will include elements around resilience, decision making under pressure and dealing with conflict, but I would encourage you to consider where recognising and knowing how lead big changes fits into their development. Sometimes it needs to be fast tracked when you know a big change is coming to ensure the capability is fresh and functional.

4 – Improve your communications flow and reduce their inputs

From a communications perspective, it is always worth looking closely at where the pinch points are in an organisation and where the messages need to help to flow through in a meaningful (and less onerous) way. Help can come in many forms and typically applying a mix of analysis (including process and policy review), coaching and channel or product optimization can make a big difference.

The other critical action is prioritizing your middle managers inputs, or asking them to limit the information from sources that will disrupt their workflow. If you consider that anything coming in is an input that is planned or unplanned, things like email can cause endless distraction and disruption. I have seen way too many middle managers subscribe to every update, alert or report because they feel they need to know everything, despite their inability to process all that they receive. This is particularly prevalent when people are micro managed by executives (as they always want to be prepared to avoid retribution). So, identify critical inputs, ditch the rest and schedule a set time for viewing and responding to them. As much as possible, make the majority of the day about outputs as the higher value typically comes from them. This shift requires leadership support that recognises overloads and supports the higher value action.

5 – Shift the ownership

As I always say, if you want it to work, they need to own it. This can be tricky to embed as we have recognised how busy these people can be in operations but it will transform their involvement from delivering on a directive to ‘me making this work’ on a local and global scale.

If you think about the way you approach something that has someone else’s stamp all over it compared to your own, the difference is enormous.

The challenge here is providing real opportunities to take ownership every day so that when a big change rolls around, it’s not a new behaviour and your people are ready to step up and own the next big thing.

Stockwell Bretton loves playing in this space and will soon have change leadership and middle manager communications development modules ready for use. Get in touch if there is something we can shape for your team through


Benjamin Smith