Top-down pyramidal structures are producing stressed-out middle managers, low productivity and poor working relationships. While this style of management was relevant for 1960s manufacturing jobs, in our 21st century service-based economy it is outdated and ineffective.
To fix the problem, organisations often try to increase collaborative working, encourage autonomous projects or boost innovative thinking. Some of these tactics can be effective in the short term, but often they can’t easily be slotted into existing management structures.
Middle managers are often laden with projects to manage, people to develop and ‘exciting’ company-wide initiatives to support. So it is no surprise to find that when a deadline is looming, or they’re on the receiving end of pressure from upper management, their support for collaborative working goes out of the window and habitual ‘command and control’ practices reappear.
They need to deliver on outcomes and against KPIs to keep their own job. It is unrealistic to expect that same person to be able to provide the conditions or environment that allows team members to thrive when they aren’t given the same themselves.
When HR departments recognise that employees do not have access to the learning and development opportunities they seek from their direct line managers, mentoring programmes are often established. Unfortunately, mentoring is based on the premise that someone senior has experience and wisdom that they need to endow upon someone more junior. But this is simply a reinforcement of the existing hierarchy: concentrating power at the top, treating those at the bottom as subordinates and isolating those in the middle as the ‘permafrost’ layer that gets in the way. Mentoring is further validating the broken system we are stuck in.
If we are to create management practices that are beneficial to organisational success then we must first change our mindsets. We need to see people not as a resource, but as individuals with limitless potential. By giving people the freedom – and support, where necessary – to be involved in the decision-making process, even if they are not the most senior person on the team, and to have a voice in their work, innovation and creativity will be fostered, as well as a sense of shared responsibility.
Allowing people to be ambitious, but accountable, can unleash unrealised talent; better yet, it actually engages people to work. Taking this approach can create a sense of fulfilment, increase company productivity and, coincidentally, reduce the stress placed on middle managers.
But how can this be done in a practical way? Improved management comes down to two things: listening and respect – the prerequisites before any initiative, tool or technique.
It is increasingly being recognised that people are not motivated purely by financial incentives, and that many of us seek meaning in our work. Choosing to actively hear that message, without agenda, and really listening to those around you on a daily basis, will help to create the respect necessary to form open, mature and positive relationships.
Julia Rebholz is a senior adviser at A Blueprint for Better Business