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September 12, 2023 9 min

What value do middle managers bring in the era of AI?

Executives in many companies are starting to realize the value their middle managers can bring to their organizations if they properly configure these roles and assign them to the right people.

Santi Garcia

An article by Santi Garcia

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Many middle managers feel trapped in an uncomfortable position that negatively impacts their performance. According to the 2022 edition of Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report, more than half of managers believe that their companies’ leaders are disconnected from employee expectations (which, in principle, should be one of the responsibilities of those same managers), while three out of four feel they lack the influence and resources needed to make changes on behalf of their teams. Moreover, many feel they have less power and control over their work than those who report to them. Most also do not feel sufficiently recognized.

This situation affects the mental health of many of these managers and their connection with their employers. A recent joint study by the UKG Workforce Institute and Workplace Intelligence confirms that middle managers in companies often feel more stressed than their colleagues and even more stressed than top executives in their companies. According to this same study, one in four middle managers feels “burned out” at work “often” or “always,” while 46% say it is likely they will leave their job in the next 12 months due to work-related stress.

How did we get here?

Looking back, we find that the way many companies have implemented certain management practices has ended up limiting their managers’ ability to contribute to the organization’s success, if not making them a hindrance. Middle managers have often been the victims of projects carried out by many companies to “flatten” their structures, guided by the belief that, as machines and algorithms can perform many of the programming and work control tasks traditionally handled by managers, some of these positions become expendable costs.

On other occasions, the problem lies in filling these middle positions with people who were neither prepared nor willing to take on those roles. Although more and more companies offer career paths for specialists, allowing them to thrive professionally (and financially) without needing to “move up” into a team management role, many managers are in these positions because at the time, that promotion was the only tool the company had to financially recognize their merits.

Related to the previous point, one specific practice that has hampered the performance of many middle managers is the player-coach model, which I wrote about a whopping 17 years ago. In companies that follow this model, managers are responsible for making an individual contribution within their area of expertise in addition to their team management role. In theory, it may sound good (it takes advantage of the new manager’s previous knowledge, it’s a way to contain personnel costs, etc.). However, in practice, it’s not always easy to divide oneself between two such different roles, let alone do both well.

Moreover, in many organizations, the standardization and bureaucratization of processes have led to an increase in the administrative burden on managers, as well as a loss of autonomy that limits their ability to seek solutions tailored to the realities of their teams, turning them into mere box-checkers.

As if all this weren’t enough, the generalization of remote/hybrid work has been the icing on the cake. We know of middle managers who, fearing the loss of sight of their teams, filled their calendars with pointless video calls and meetings, partly to control their teams but also to give themselves something to do. In fact, managers have often been the first victims of “productivity paranoia,” a phenomenon we wrote about last year.

And, of course, we can’t forget the lack of quality training that some companies’ managers suffer from. Once promoted, they are often left to their own devices, frequently with the excuse that the best way to learn to manage people is through day-to-day practice.

What can we do to break these dynamics?

Among what I’ve recently read on this subject, I find the roadmap suggested by Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field, all partners at McKinsey & Co., in their recent book “Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work (2023) to be very compelling.

For the authors, the success of middle managers begins with the top executives of the company. To start, they need to understand something very basic: middle managers are the ones who manage the organization’s most complex asset (its people). They also need to understand that if they want to empower their managers to become the coaches, connectors, talent magnets, and navigators that their companies need to face the challenges arising in the era of change we are experiencing, they themselves first need to rethink what tasks they devote their time to, what they ask of their managers, and ultimately, the example they set.

Similarly, business leaders need to change the prevailing narrative and stop portraying managerial roles as a “stopover station” between specialist jobs and high-level leadership positions. Just as many companies have created specific career paths for their professional and technical specialists, they should consider managers as a profession in itself, and devise ways for managers who excel at people management to grow professionally and financially without necessarily being promoted to high-level positions for which they may not be adequately prepared (and in many cases not even interested).

In parallel, business leaders need to introduce changes in the job design for managers who lack time, resources, and autonomy to carry out the most critical activity for any organization: managing their people. They need to provide them with training and time to act as coaches for their teams. They must realize that managers are key players in attracting and retaining the professionals the company needs, particularly in a scenario of skilled labor shortages and the “war for talent” many industries are currently experiencing. It’s also crucial to involve them in the onboarding of new hires, as the first weeks and months of the employment relationship see the highest number of voluntary resignations.

Moreover, managers are best positioned to understand what really motivates each of their team members to go to work every day and to connect the individual purpose of each person with the company’s goals and mission. They can also identify the root causes when an employee is unable, unwilling, or believes they’re not allowed to do certain things, and take measures to resolve these situations. They are the only ones who can create psychologically safe environments that greatly affect team effectiveness, especially when dealing with diverse teams. For all these reasons, middle managers cannot just be mere executors of the HR policies dictated by their companies’ HR departments, nor wait idly for the HR professionals to undertake individual-level work that they are not (and never will be) sufficiently equipped for.

Furthermore, managers can and should play a central role in problem-solving processes. At a time when evidence-based management is talked about a lot, and many companies are trying to promote “data cultures” within their organizations, middle managers are ideally positioned to identify which factors are most important to measure, then use these data themselves or translate them to help the organization make better-informed decisions. Of course, this responsibility also requires adequate training.

But still, the opportunities to empower middle managers do not end there. Another line of empowerment proposed by Schaninger and his colleagues, which I personally find very compelling, is to assign middle managers the responsibility of “rebundling” tasks that will continue to be performed by the company’s human workforce as technological advances allow for the automation of more and more tasks. Companies can leverage the privileged position of their managers to align their employees’ capabilities with the changing needs of the company and, along the way, personalize the value proposition of the company for its employees. However, as the authors acknowledge, for this to happen, the company’s executives must first repackage the responsibilities assigned to their managers, freeing them from tasks that add less value or hinder their performance.

In summary, we are at a crucial moment to redefine the role of middle managers and the value they bring to organizations. The good news is that, thanks to new automation and AI technologies, many of the routine and bureaucratic tasks that consumed these professionals’ time are being taken over by algorithms. This represents a unique opportunity to redesign the roles of managers and increase the value they bring to their organizations. Instead of acting as mere intermediaries or task executors, managers now have the opportunity to focus more on what’s most important: people management. Business leaders must recognize this paradigm shift and provide the tools, training, and autonomy needed for middle managers to become catalysts for change and efficiency. This transformation will not only maximize the well-being of employees and the performance of the organization but will also allow managers to unleash their full potential and contribute significantly to the success of the company. However, changing the cultural narrative that undervalues the figure of middle managers is crucial for this process, as only then can we unlock all the value that managers can bring in the complex scenarios that companies face today.

Reference

Schaninger, B. et al. (2023). Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work. Harvard Press.

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Photo by Muhammadh Saamy on Unsplash

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