Middle managers, those we once called intermediate managers, play a critical role in fostering both the engagement and performance of their teams. We encourage them to act as leaders when they are buried in bureaucracy and absorbed in problem solving and doing technical work. Tackling their situation is undoubtedly one of the most important ways to improve the effectiveness of organisations. Communication with and from them is one of the keys to success.
Those directly responsible for teams have a decisive impact on the commitment (desire) that employees experience with their organisation, as well as the quality and quantity of their performance (doing and doing better every day). This is a statement that is widely shared for us not to spend more time justifying it.
The flattening of structures, often linked to the increasing automation of tasks, transformed the role of “middle management” many years ago: in the structure, fewer levels above and below; at work, less direct supervision of employees’ actions and more management tasks or feeding and reviewing data into systems. This has led to more cost-efficient organisations and more autonomous staff in carrying out the work. However, alongside these positive results, new challenges are appearing, which call for new solutions.
We quote a conclusion drawn from a McKinsey study: “Companies treat middle managers as a catch-all, requiring them to spend much of their time handling non-managerial work and navigating organisational bureaucracy rather than allowing them to focus on the most important role in an organisation: nurturing talent”.
Yes, nurturing talent where once the priority was the supervision of the workforce.
We focus this reflection on the industrial environment, where the complexity implicit in this transformation is very clearly perceived, although similar reflections can be made in administrative or technical environments.
Automation has eliminated many operational tasks, reducing the number of people dedicated to them and transforming their work, which is increasingly focused on the supervision of mechanised processes. Today’s operators – to a large extent – no longer perform physical work at a position on the production line, but sit at control stations or walk around the plant ensuring its smooth operation. In many industrial sites, work clothes are no longer stained by grease from machines, dust from the processing of raw materials or sweat from physical exertion. The new operators bring, above all, knowledge of the process and attention in their supervision. Knowledge and attention… two qualities inherent to intellectual work, now also demanded of those who were previously manual operators.
Knowledge and attention that require encouragement and recognition. Stimulus and recognition of a very different nature to that of the previous operative positions, but equally – if not more – necessary. Stimulus and recognition that cannot be achieved without specific directive action by their direct managers, those “middle managers” whose work many believed would disappear with the automation of physical work.
A person dedicated to providing knowledge and close supervision of the installation for which he or she is responsible has very specific communication needs. They need to know the reason for the processes and the keys to product differentiation, they need to know the upstream and downstream phases of the overall production process and, above all, they need to feel heard so that their knowledge has an impact on the organisation.
Knowing the meaning of the task and the context of the responsibility being carried out; feeling heard and relevant in the decisions of the environment in which they work. Both requirements require close and willing managers who dedicate time to dialogue and sharing with their collaborators -both individually and as a team-. Managers who are aware that they manage “talent” and not “direct labour”.
In our experience, it is necessary to incorporate communication with the teams as a specific responsibility of middle managers, specifying the activities that are required for it, freeing up the necessary time for its implementation and providing the necessary training and content so that this conversation can flow with utility for both (manager and team) and, therefore, for the organisation.
In the past, an authoritarian manager could achieve an efficient production line. Today, we have all realised that shouting at the person supervising a robot is as ineffective as shouting at the robot itself. Not only ineffective, but clearly counterproductive.
Communication with teams can no longer be a variable of each manager’s personal style – something that some managers do because they like it and others do not; communication as an activity of free choice – or something to be done when other obligations allow it – communication as a marginal activity. Communication with teams is one of the keys to achieving their commitment, which is necessary to achieve differential contributions and performance.
Because automation is not just about replacing people with machines.
By Pablo Gonzalo, partner at Estudio de Comunicación