I’m a middle child, the second of three boys. According to recent research, I should therefore be more successful, ambitious, open to innovation, empathic, well-adjusted, independent, generous, kind, devoted, balanced, confident and hard-working than my two brothers. Well, I don’t know about that but I’ll take it! Seriously though, a number of studies in the US and Europe have exposed the myth of us middle-borns being resentful and neglected underachievers. Our middle status enhances our ability to keep the peace and negotiate. The attention given to our supposedly responsible first and rebellious last-born siblings apparently gives us an inner drive to succeed, to get noticed, to rise above the pack. OK, let’s assume all that is true. Now let’s translate the same logic into the workplace and consider the role of middle managers. My comms colleagues will immediately recognise this community as being a perennial ‘problem area’. We worry about middle managers more than anyone else, because we know how important they are. We ask more of middle managers than any other stakeholder group. We need them to deliver and translate messages, manage change, improve wellbeing, motivate their people and role model values. But unlike the senior leaders, who can be ‘picked off’ and coached individually, this middle community (what my old boss used to call the ‘marzipan layer’) is usually too remote and numerous (and busy) for us to nurture and support one-to-one. What’s more, just like the middle child in the family, the middle manager has to juggle responsibilities and keep the peace, treading a fine line between ‘corporate mouthpiece’ and ‘voice of the people’. They must support the ‘company line’ and embody its culture, whilst remaining loyal to the people they lead. Middle managers are usually the unhappiest people in the organisation – stressed, over-worked, under-valued, constantly in fear of the chop and pulled from both ends. It’s a tough ask, and then we communicators come along and make it even tougher. I remember growing up wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, especially as there was (and still is!) only 17 months between us. The metaphor translates to middle managers who are asked to consume hand-me-down messages created by others and which they are expected to endorse, interpret and pass on. My industry devotes whole conferences to deciding how best to do that. Maybe one way is to tap into those middle child characteristics.
In a recent study carried out by Dublin City University*, a number of middle managers in the Irish Health Service were asked to talk about a major organisational change event they had experienced. About half chose the current top-down initiative (there’s always one isn’t there?) and the others recalled a change they themselves had initiated. What the researchers found was that the corporate initiative came in for criticism around areas like strategic direction, increase in workload and poor communication. On the other hand, those who talked about their own initiative were enthusiastic, pragmatic and highlighted the value of communication. One participant neatly summed up the difference by saying his own approach was “we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work?”, whereas the top-down approach was more like “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.” Clearly this demonstrates the importance of ownership in times of change, we all prefer to be in control of our own destiny and we’re all nervous about ‘done to’ change. But the Irish researchers made the important point that middle managers can be catalysts of change when given the opportunity to develop their own initiatives rather than pass on someone else’s. In this particular study, they found that in most cases, the manager-led change initiatives produced many of the same outcomes that the top-down change was meant to enforce! So maybe the lesson here is that rather than characterise middle managers as difficult, frustrating and hard to control, perhaps we should allow them to demonstrate those middle child skills of empathy, creativity and empowerment. Be proud, you fellow mid-borns!
* Conway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change, Human Resource Management Journal