What does a crisis in MIDDLE management mean for TALENT management?

Middle management matters

Middle managers have it tough. They’re facing an environment with increasing workloads and constrained resources. The Australian Institute of Management (AIM) understands the challenges. They recently released a discussion paper called Engaging Middle Managers For Positive Organisational Change.

As part of this report, AIM asked senior managers how critical middle management are to well-run organisations:

  • 89.3% of senior managers agree that middle managers are the linchpin to effectively communicate the needs of senior management to their teams. 
  • 92.7% of senior managers agree empowering middle managers is key to effective implementation of organizational change.

For the majority of Australian executives, there’s no doubt about the critical role of middle management for communication and driving organizational change.

The expectation gap for middle management is getting wider

What’s most interesting from a talent management perspective in this report is the gap between the perceived and actual performance of middle management:

  • 64% of senior managers rate the skills of middle management as “below average”. 
  • However, only 27% of middle managers think middle management is underperforming.

You don’t need to be a talent management expert to understand the issue here! Middle managers are failing to meet the expectations of senior management, and they don’t even know it.

Talent and performance management done well is all about making sure that everyone’s on the same page. Everyone knows whether they’re on track and what success means. From this data, it’s evident that there’s a major expectation gap. Middle management and senior management clearly have very different ideas about what is expected from middle management.

Understanding the expectation gap: Middle managers think they need more soft skills, everyone else thinks otherwise.

This chart shows the different perceptions around the skill gaps for middle managers. You’ll notice middle managers (light blue) place more emphasis on soft skills, whilst both senior management (red) and direct reports (dark blue) emphasize technical skills:

Expectation gap chart

These charts make the expectation gap very clear. Middle managers are focusing on soft skills, and that’s reflected in how they are perceived by both managers and their direct reports.

Whether this skill mix is right or wrong, it’s easy to see how these different perspectives lead to disaster when it comes to performance review time:

  • Middle management are being evaluated on the competencies that senior management and their reports think they SHOULD have.
  • Middle management are evaluating their own performance based on the competencies that they think they SHOULD have.
  • But because these competencies are unclear, there’s a major gap between perceived and actual performance.

Setting clear expectations and objectives are critical for all employees (including middle managers)

The aim of great talent management is always to minimise the expectation gap. If you’re doing performance management well you should never have the scenario where an employee thinks they’ve done great work, only to be told otherwise in a 6 monthly review.

Everyone from direct reports to the C-suite should read AIM’s discussion paper, it articulates why it’s so critical to set clear expectations and objectives for everyone in the organization. Everyone benefits when the scoreboard is visible and plain to see.

Have you read the discussion paper yet? Have anything you’d like to add? You can reach me on Twitter @cognology or jump on the comments below.

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