Why Middle Managers Are So Important

Article first published as Why Middle Managers Are So Important on Technorati.

Managers have come in for a hard time recently, not least from Ratan Tata who launched an attack on the work ethic of managers at Jaguar Land Rover recently. It justifiably caused a stir amongst the management community who sought to defend managers as a profession.

So new research by Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick in support of middle managers is both timely and interesting. The paper, titled “People and Process: Suits and Innovators: Individuals and Firm Performance”, suggests that middle managers may have more influence on your organisations performance than any other group.

Mollick suggests that middle managers are especially important in industry that require innovative employees such as biotech, computing and media.

“It is in these knowledge-intensive industries where variation in the abilities of middle managers – the “suits” he refers to in his paper — has a “particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of individuals who are assigned innovative roles,” Mollick says.

The value provided by middle managers in such an environment is in project management, allocation of resources and generally coordinating the talented individuals required in such industries.

This follows similar research in 2008, also from Wharton, that underlines the importance of middle managers. Middle managers are essential in organisations, in part because they link senior management and the rest of the company. They are “the glue across upper and lower levels as well as horizontally with other departments.”

An Accenture study in 2007 however reported that many middle managers are unhappy in their companies, with a lack of training being the key factor in that unhappiness.

Education, education, education

So it seems obvious to me where the focus should lie. If good middle managers are key to success in a knowledge economy, they should be trained to become good. If training is a key element in keeping good managers happy and engaged, then training should be offered. Management training is therefore key. Yet it so rarely happens.

In the UK, just 1 in 5 managers has a professional qualification. Today’s managers are better engaged when employers deliver on promises of skills development. In an environment where the skill shortage continues to affect productivity, employers would be well advised to respond to the demands of their staff.


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