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Three Ways Middle Managers Bring Unique Value to Organizations

Published Wed Sep 06 2023

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Middle managers are often overlooked, but they can have an oversized effect on companies. Based on DDI’s research, assessment data, and experience working with organizations worldwide, there are three ways middle managers can make the most impact:

1. Accelerate change. Middle managers can be a catalyst to accelerate change and transformation. Businesses evolve quickly, and strong mid-level leadership holds the organization together as it drives forward or tries something new. Companies need mid-level leaders who can drive change quickly while managing complexities. For example, think about the novel challenges brought on by the hybrid workplace or changes to data and privacy laws.

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Mid-level leaders experience unique pressure to interface with executives on business strategy, then translate that into words and actions that make sense to the rest of the organization.

2. Empower multiple teams. The second area where middle managers make the most impact is navigating multidirectional expectations. This includes working across teams and often breaking down silos. Mid-level managers need to engage and empower their teams, which may require different tactics depending on the different disciplines that report to them.

For example, I work with a finance director of a European retail organization. He has six formal teams, which include finance controllers and managers in five countries, plus someone to manage the finance systems. But there are another six informal teams he needs to influence and engage: legal, fashion, design, sales, marketing, and production. It would be impossible for him to achieve his own goals in accounting without working closely alongside all of these teams. So, he must not only coach the members of his six official teams, but also influence 20 other managers to keep everyone aligned and on track.

Such a setup is not uncommon. Because so many organizations are matrixed today, middle managers have a huge opportunity to empower teams beyond their own. Leaders who are strong influencers can have a tremendous impact on their organization.

3. Navigate visibility and vulnerability. We used to think that the spotlight shone only on top executives. If the company didn’t hit business targets, executive jobs might be on the line. But middle managers now share this pressure.

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Greater visibility into the performance of mid-level leaders has created a new sense of vulnerability—and it’s burning them out. According to a recent survey by Slack Technologies Inc.’s Future Forum, middle managers are the most exhausted of all organizational levels.

A middle manager I spoke to recently said, “What happens if the company decides my function isn’t performing? I’m gone.” And as middle managers’ output has become more visible, their to-do lists and challenges often remain invisible. Another middle manager told me, “The board doesn’t often see all that I do—so I could appear deadweight to them.”

Middle managers who can successfully navigate increased visibility and vulnerability are in a better position to help their organizations succeed. For example, those who do this well are more likely to take calculated risks to spur innovation and are better able to make quick decisions. Mid-level leaders who can manage vulnerability are modeling great leadership behaviors—including leading authentically. Authentic leaders manage vulnerability and build greater trust with their teams.

Learn more ways middle managers bring unique value in this DDI blog.

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