Copyright TIGERS Success Series

By Dianne Crampton

You have probably read the articles. Everyone from Wall Street Journal writers to fellow leadership experts state that managers hold the keys to employee re-engagement. Yet, recent studies on workforce engagement find that of all disengaged employees, middle managers are suffering the most.

 According to Stacia Gaer, senior analyst for Bersin & Associates, 22% of an organization’s success is determined by the skill level of mid-managers who impact more employees on a daily basis than any other company employee.  Implementing goals and strategies contribute to 21% of organizational success. Yet, mid-managers are responsible for taking strategies that are developed in the boardroom and executing them. This means that 43% of organizational success resides with mid-managers whose positions are generally two to three levels below the CEO.

Why does this matter now?

During the current economic downturn, mid-managers have experienced greater span of control with increased direct contact with customers and the people they supervise. One reason is due to corporate downsizing and redistribution of duties, with many more responsibilities landing on the mid-manager’s desk.

As a result mid-managers have less time to help employees deal with customer issues. Organizationally — with cutbacks, less training and development – little focus has been given to mid-managers to help them focus on priorities and improve their skills.

For many, the feeling is that they have been thrown off the boat to learn how to swim on their own. This sink or swim approach to employee development is also directly correlated to business success.

 For example, according to Gaer it is important to hold senior leaders accountable for supporting middle managers. Of the companies that were included in the study:

 ●  When senior leaders were held accountable for supporting middle managers, businesses experienced 77% above average business results.

●  When senior leaders were not held accountable for supporting middle managers, 75% of the businesses that were included in the study reported average business results. 

 The hard reality is that average business results don’t cut it in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

What support do middle managers need?

According to Gaer’s summary of findings from Bersin & Associates, only 51% of the middle managers studied were considered highly capable. This means just over half were proficient in managing the performance of the employees they supervised and were proficient in recognizing employees and in demonstrating leadership skills. Conversely, those mid-managers who are not supported in gaining these skills disengaged.

 This is consistent with TIGERS Success Series findings. With regard to demonstrating leadership skills and employee recognition, our preliminary findings show that managers are lacking skills in communication for goal clarity, employee coaching and conflict resolution. Managers also tell us that they are confused about their own goals and how to implement them when working with both older and younger employees. 

What this means for many U.S. businesses is that engagement is plunging from mid-management levels down. The reality is that you need high levels of engagement in order to launch new projects and grow.

 Tips for building engagement

 Leaders interested in keeping their businesses together and capable of responding to changing market demands will gain momentum and boost engagement by launching the following activities:

1.  Give mid-managers the tools to re-engage the employees they supervise. An example is the TIGERS Team Wheel game that helps business units and companies develop norms of behavior that promote cooperation between employees. The TIGERS Team Wheel game teaches teams behaviors that predictably build successful work teams and behaviors that predictably tear them down. This sets the stage for creating workforce development training that addresses the most basic behavior issues facing the team.

2. Prioritize the support of middle managers. Those organizations where middle managers are highly effective result in an engagement workforce with high retention.

 3. Improve goal clarity from senior executives to middle managers. Business is changing so quickly that goals need to be refined at least quarterly. If mid-managers are unclear about their goals it is easy for them to go off target.

4. Improve mid-manager coaching and communication skills. Apply these skills to two initiatives. The first is in developing employees and the second is performance appraisal.

 5. Improve mid-managers’ change management and project management skills. Many of these skills over lap and software tracking systems currently exist that can help leaders keep track of goal and project progress.

During these changing times, mid-managers are craving goal clarity. In the same vein, employees they supervise also need to understand their goals and how to win. They need to know how and why what they do makes a difference. They need to understand clear management expectations.

 Ultimately, when performance conversations are successful the result is greater cooperation between employees and opportunities to celebrate successes. Higher  engagement is a predictable outcome.

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