JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Tom Peters started the move to rid organizations of middle managers. In many companies, the mantra became “Flatten the organization.” — “Middle managers are stubborn defenders of the status quo.” I recall one large, effective information-development organization that was told to manage their projects through self-directed teams. The publications managers were either fired or demoted. Very recently I’ve received word of more companies who got rid of the managers because they were perceived as adding no value, even though they had initiated the changes that were making their departments successful.

In his September 2001 article, “In Praise of Middle Managers,” in the Harvard Business Review, Quy Nguyen Huy reports on the results of a six-year study of middle managers and their key role in organizational change. He found that middle managers were instrumental in fostering radical change, a role completely ignored by senior executives. He sites four important contributions:

  • Middle managers are the source of valuable new ideas that they are excited about implementing
  • Middle managers have extensive networks in a company that they can use to influence change
  • Middle managers know what employees are thinking and feeling about a change initiative
  • Middle managers know how to balance change and continuity so that their departments neither stagnate or become chaotic

Let’s consider information-development departments in this light.

Publications managers often know the weaknesses of their departments. They recognize a paucity of customer information; they know when activities are inefficient; they know when staff are ready to adopt new technologies. At the same time, they are close enough to senior management that they are aware of business directions, especially those that will necessitate significant change.

Huy points out that middle managers are often more diverse than their senior counterparts. Information development, for example, has more gender diversity, more ethnic minorities, more varieties of work experience, and a better knowledge of geographic differences than the small number of individuals who run most of our companies. As a result, their ideas are more innovative and up-to-date than those of the bosses.

In his study of one telecommunications company, Huy found that 80% of the projects proposed by senior management failed. Of those proposed by middle management, 80% succeeded. Nevertheless, Huy found that senior executives rarely listened to their middle managers, instead trying every way possible to eliminate their positions.

We see this trend in information development when writers are distributed among projects managed by a few technical product managers at the same time that the publications manager’s post is eliminated. In such cases, the writers only rarely receive encouragement or support from their managers. They are not invited to attend team meetings, their points of view are not sought out, they rarely receive approvals for training or conference attendance, and their work is regarded as largely clerical.

When writers report directly to a publications manager, especially one who reports high enough in the hierarchy to have budget and administrative responsibility, the scene is remarkably different. If they are effective and interested in the success of their staff, publications managers value training and seek it out for their staff, support conference attendance, invite innovative ideas, work for customer contact, and find opportunities for cost efficiencies.

Not only do middle managers muster the support of their staff, they can also be effective in communicating to colleagues throughout the organization. The better connected a manager is, the more he or she knows managers in other departments, the better the manager is able to assist the implementation of change initiatives. Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, refers to such well-connected individuals as connectors. Both Huy and Gladwell note that connectors have key roles to play in the implementation process.

In my experience, publications managers can be, but are not always, good connectors. The effectives ones have built up internal networks, often by trading favors with other managers. They seek out others in the organization who are sympathetic to the goals of information development. I know of cases where publications managers have joined forces with managers of customer service, training, product marketing, and development to create a positive environment for a new idea. Of course, I’ve also known of publications managers who were not good connectors. These individuals were likely serious introverts who preferred to spend their energies editing or involved in tools selection rather than out making contacts. Several years ago, a friend recommended that I develop a workshop on management for introverts precisely to help people overcome their lack of connectedness.

Certainly, managers must act as introverts to build networks effectively within their organizations. As a closet introvert, I learned to act like an extrovert to build the contacts needed for a successful business. Most people I meet think I’m an extrovert. In fact, I believe that many effective publications managers easily cross the line between introvert and extrovert. Information development offers opportunities for introverts to succeed; management requires a more outgoing nature. Those in the middle of the Myers-Briggs extrovert-introvert continuum succeed in both worlds.

Most important, however, is the skill that introverts often bring to understanding others, although they may find it difficult to wear their empathy on their sleeves. I’ve observed many introverts who are actively aware of the emotional states of their staff members and engaged in supporting their needs in response to workplace stress in times of change. By listening to the needs of individuals, managers help defuse some of the tension while keeping work on track.

Middle managers recognize not only that people need support in times of change, but also that change must be balanced with continuity. By meeting deadlines, “getting the books out,” publications managers acknowledge that real work has to continue. At the same time, they carve out enough time to allow people to participate in the change initiative. They find a way to involve staff members in selecting new tools, studying customers, redesigning information deliverables, and making processes more efficient. By involving staff in the activities, these effective managers make change possible.

Huy believes that senior managers must learn to respect and use the knowledge and capabilities of their middle managers, making them allies in the change process rather than enemies. He sums up his case quite well, “The challenge …

[is] figuring out how to hold on to core values and capabilities while simultaneously change how work gets done and shifting the organization in new strategic directions.”

For a copy of Huy’s article ask for reprint number 7680 from the Harvard Business Review.