HR Query

HR Query: Why Zuckerberg Is Wrong About Mid-Level Managers

After Elon Musk fired middle managers in mass after his Twitter takeover, Zuckerberg called this trend “good for the industry.” Management expert Verity Creedy begs to differ. According to Creedy, VP of Product Management at global leadership company DDI, mid-level managers are being underutilized and unappreciated – when in reality, they’re the unsung heroes of their organization.

middle managers

Creedy believes if leaders spent more time understanding the personalities of their middle managers, they would see massive gains in efficiency, culture change, and employee empowerment. 

In this week’s HR Query, Creedy shares expert advice on how leaders should change their approach to middle management.

Here’s what she had to say.

With his Twitter buyout last fall, Elon Musk kicked off a trend of tech executives laying off middle managers for the sake of efficiency ­— which Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called “good for the industry.” Why do you believe middle managers have come under so much scrutiny?

VC: Over the past few years, we’ve seen increased economic volatility and greater pressure for companies to show a path to profitability. In this climate, CEOs are quick to leap to the conclusion that middle managers aren’t embracing or implementing changes fast enough.

Many executives perceive middle managers as merely an extra layer getting in the way of execution and believe flattening out their organization structure will accelerate growth and cut costs. What these CEOs fail to see is the immense commercial and cultural value middle managers are driving for their organizations. 

How does cutting out middle managers impact organizations in the long-term? Are there any unintended consequences?

VC: Middle managers are the connectors between strategy and execution in an organization, so cutting them out creates a disconnect between executive direction and frontline action. As the glue of the organization, middle managers are often invisible to CEOs — who don’t see the barriers they were removing until they’re gone.

It’s difficult for executives to build a strong culture and implement strategic initiatives without the connective tissue that middle managers provide.

On top of inhibiting organizations’ ability to drive change, cutting out middle managers also weakens leadership pipelines. Research from DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast shows companies with high-quality mid-level leaders are able to fill 65% of critical leadership roles, compared to only 28% of roles in organizations with low-quality mid-level leaders.

Failing to invest in middle managers can create future problems for CEOs as they struggle to attract and retain the right leaders to grow their organization.

What do you see as the ideal role of a middle manager — in which functions do they drive the most value for their organization?

VC: Middle managers are master negotiators. They’re highly skilled at managing up, down and across the organization. By building trust-based relationships, they heavily influence not only the organization’s day-to-day work but also its culture.

Today, many organizations are matrixed, so middle managers are experts at navigating networks and uniquely positioned to break down siloes and empower multiple teams.

One example of an area where middle managers drive value for their organization is with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The C-Suite may set DE&I targets, though middle managers are on the ground putting these goals into practice by modeling positive behaviors such as supporting inclusivity, proactively hiring from diverse talent pools, and integrating DE&I considerations into daily operations.

In what areas do you see the greatest skill gaps for middle managers? How do their development and training needs differ from leaders at other levels?

Based on my experience and coaching, across the board, there are significant skill gaps for middle managers stemming from organizations’ lack of quality development and training programs. According to DDI’s research, only 26% of HR rated their mid-level leader quality as very good or excellent. At the same time, only 27% of HR leaders said they had high-quality mid-level leadership development programs. 

While middle managers need to develop a range of skills, there are a few areas we find to be crucial to develop:

  • Translating strategy into execution
  • Serving as culture ambassadors within teams
  • Influencing and managing a network of stakeholders
  • Gaining self-awareness of their personality traits and how they impact the organization

These are the four skills we most often encounter with our development and coaching at this level. Because these skills are so multifaceted and unique to every individual and their organizational context, it’s important to provide middle managers with personalized development opportunities. Mid-level managers need insights into their personality more than leaders at other levels because they’re at an inflection point.

Their personal influence is increasing, and they need to develop executive presence and manage their personal impact.

The big mistake many organizations make when they try to develop personal insights for their middle managers is giving them a one-off personality test. The manager gets their test results back with some broad themes, then never looks at it again.

Middle managers not only need to gain better insight into how they’re hardwired internally, but they also need to understand how their personality traits manifest in their everyday work. Effective personal insight development should help middle managers connect who they are to how they lead — and understand how to manage their performance as a leader, especially when they’re under stress. 

What can HR teams and leaders do to better support middle managers?

VC: HR teams and leaders should be mindful that middle managers are especially vulnerable to burnout. During the pandemic, middle managers faced unique pressures as they had to drive rapid change and high performance through unobserved working in a hybrid or remote setting.

And now, as some organizations are making (often unpopular) decisions to push employees back into the office, middle managers are caught in the messenger role — having to communicate these messages down or challenge the decision upwards. We found an alarming 65% of mid-level leaders reporting that their stress level increased significantly upon entering their role and 60% frequently feeling used up at the end of the workday.

Middle managers are commonly the level of leadership most at risk of burnout.

To get ahead of this burnout, HR teams should encourage feedback, actively listen to spot managers’ concerns before they spiral into bigger issues and give middle managers role clarity and clear expectations of what success looks like. Senior leaders can alleviate the stress on middle managers by practicing empathy and using vulnerability and transparency to build trust.

Additionally, HR teams and leaders should recognize that each middle manager has unique strengths and challenges, so offering personalized development opportunities based on understanding the individual’s personal insights is most impactful.

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