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Scapegoats in the middle

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
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What is it about the middle management that makes them highly vulnerable when companies are faced with a crunch? One reason is that it is relatively easy to make a case for job cuts in this category. They draw relatively higher salaries, and it is easier to show savings by slashing middle management positions, at least in the short term.
It is not surprising to see middle management across the world being blamed for inefficiencies and poor execution of strategies and plans. This group, more than others, usually becomes a convenient target for redundancies, to cut costs and achieve significant gains in productivity. In most reengineering and right-sizing initiatives, members of middle management come under strain more than other groups – in other words, they are the usual scapegoats.
What is it about the middle management that makes them highly vulnerable when companies are faced with a crunch? One reason is that it is relatively easy to make a case for job cuts in this category. They draw relatively higher salaries, and it is easier to show savings by slashing middle management positions, at least in the short term.
Higher management commonly believe that most middle managers fail to effectively communicate the company’s vision, mission, values, plans and priorities down the line through their day-to-day actions.
Most, if not all, middle managers are also seen to be risk-averse, and therefore, end up delegating upwards to shift responsibility from themselves. Alternatively, they are seen to sit on decisions, till a problem becomes severe, or irrelevant. This group spends the bulk of their energies keeping vital business information to themselves to protect their turf, instead of sharing it freely with their team members. They tend to enjoy the little power they have for as long as they can, preferably till they can comfortably retire. All this while, the attitude of such managers is, ‘Why rock the boat when the going is good?’ Such conduct only frustrates the young high-fliers, who feel excluded, and often opt to leave for greener pastures.
Negative traits of this kind amongst many middle managers become a serious barrier to change, particularly when companies are faced with the need to radically shift strategy and tactics to stay ahead of the game. Consequently, middle management is often targeted as being the main obstacle in the path to growth and progress.
So far, what I have shared is a rationale commonly presented by higher management. Let us not forget that members of middle management are mostly in their forties or early fifties. By this stage in their lives, they lose a bit of their energy and verve. Their long experience in the organisation puts them at an advantage by virtue of their accumulated knowledge and skill. They become unconsciously competent and get conveniently trapped in their comfort zones. The urge to learn and grow in their careers starts to fade with the passage of time. To make things worse, senior management start to rely on them fairly heavily, giving middle managers a false sense of them being indispensable to the organisation.
Another thing to note is the disempowerment one witnesses amongst middle managers. Bosses are usually the target of their criticism and are usually described as tyrannical, inflexible or unresponsive. This negative perception of bosses runs through all the layers of the organisational hierarchy. For example, if you speak with junior managers, they will point to the failings of their immediate superiors. The same is the case with middle managers, when it comes to describing their bosses. Such blame games are played out over and over again.
Unhelpful features like these are present both in the public sector as well as privately owned companies, where personal loyalties and nepotism are strongly embedded in the corporate culture. Focus of managers and staff in such organisations is more on pleasing their boss, as opposed to customers – the very source of revenue – whose continued satisfaction with the company’s products and services is vital.
Regardless of what I have shared above, it is far better to leverage the rich experience and knowledge base of middle managers in a constructive way, instead of resorting to the shortcut of firing them when times are bad. Middle managers need not be jettisoned. Instead, steps should be taken to empower them and they ought to be held to account. This requires a major shift in senior management’s thinking.
The good news is that people, regardless of their age, can be encouraged to learn, grow and contribute. This is only possible when real listening takes place, dissenting voices are heard and mistakes are taken as unforeseen mishaps from which to derive learning. While this may seem like a recipe for creating chaos, it is freedom from imposed fear of bosses that breeds confidence through the ranks, and ultimately leads to better performance throughout the organisation.
Fear in people is healthy only when it is for the right reasons, such as for not doing all that is necessary to achieve mutually agreed goals and objectives and violation of the organisation’s values.  Engaging in unethical practices is another area where fear can be permitted and imposed as management policy.
Everyone, including middle managers in your organisation, need to feel empowered. This will happen when your customers and consumers are placed at the top level of importance – and not the bosses. Seniors are there to help, facilitate, coach and mentor those who serve your customers.
Konusuke Matsushita[1] emphasised a firm’s duty towards its customers, even to the extent of recommending business people not to sell customers goods that they find attractive, but goods that will benefit them. He considered after-sales service to be more important than assistance before sales, because it is through such service that one gets loyal customers. He made a telling remark, “We are going to win and the industrial West is going to lose out; there’s not much you can do about it because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves.”
Problems we find with middle management are largely of our own creation. It’s high time we see our managers as responsible and accountable beings whose performance is judged not on the basis of how comfortable they make you feel with their pleasantries, but through their focused and committed exhibition of professionalism in service of corporate goals.
Every idea, at any level, suggested by anyone in your organisation that helps gain, retain and satisfy customers has to take precedence over egos and personal whims of superiors, if your business is to flourish.

[1] “Not for Bread Alone”, Konosuke Matsushita, New York: Berkley Books, 1994

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