The Engaging Middle

Hello PPMA Member and friends

People Management reported this week on a roundtable discussion held in Nice between the Transformation Alliance, a group of five leading European Consultancies. One of the conclusions of that group was that the level to which business leaders engage middle management employees during periods of change will determine the eventual success of a transformation programme.

This is not a surprise to me and I am sure it is no surprise to you either. The middle management group are fundamental to any programme of change. This is the group who interact on a day-to-day basis with staff. They are the ones who set the mood and tone of the organisation. Senior leaders may think that they are the ones pulling the strings and with the greatest degree of influence, but the reality is that culture and change is impacted on most by the hundreds of interactions that are taking place between line managers and staff each week.

Surveys also usually show a much greater level of trust between staff and middle managers than with senior managers. Middle managers often look down (for want of a better word) and align with the employees, rather than see themselves as part of the leadership group.

Interestingly this week, I also came across some research by the Institute of Employment Studies into the engaging manager which identifies the traits which encourage engagement:

  • Effective communication
  • Integrity
  • Taking an interest
  • Performance focused, giving a clear sense of direction
  • Con challenge and confront, having the difficult conversations

They also identify the traits which inhibit engagement:

  • Micro management
  • Indecision
  • Blaming people if things go wrong
  • Egotism
  • Pessimism and complaints

What this research and the discussion in Nice reinforces, is the importance of investing in middle managers. In these difficult times, more than ever, middle managers will be fundamental to sustaining engagement and delivering change. The skills they need do not always come naturally but can be taught and we need to invest in order to build the skills we need.

I attended another roundtable this week. It was in London rather than the South of France, but I am sure the discussion was just as good. One of the issues that came up was the question of the quality of management and something that has been talked about I think through-out the 15 or so years I have been involved in local government HR, the fact that promotion and greater rewards are linked to gaining management responsibilities. Our best technicians, whether they are social workers or highways engineers have to become managers to progress their careers and earn more. They do not necessarily make the best managers and may indeed as middle managers handicap our ability to deliver engagement and change. This is something I have talked about for years, but have not really cracked! I would be interested to know if anyone has within their reward strategy?

Finally for this week, the death of Teofilo Stevensen was reported. In the days when I was growing up and the cold war was still at its height, a Cuban Heavyweight beat every boxer the United States and other countries put up against him. He won gold in 1972. 1976 and 1980. He was offered huge sums of money to turn pro and fight Ali. He chose to stay in Cuba, claiming that the affection of the Cuban people was more important. Talk about loyalty to the brand, although maybe Fidel Castro had one or two engagement tools that as employers we cannot use!


By | 2017-07-30T12:23:24+01:00 June 21st, 2012|Categories: Martin Rayson|4 Comments


  1. Jeremy Hamilton 28th June 2012 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Quite agree about supporting the squeezed middle. We enjoyed working with Hampshire County Council this week on their Commercial Challenge Conference, and we were discussing how important it is to make your “first customer” your staff and how empowerment and support of them means they will be released to “do the right thing” instinctively.

    We wrestled with “how to get a culture of empowerment”, and decided that if every leader from CEO downwards spent just a few minutes each week asking their direct reports “how much time have you been able to spend supporting, encouraging and coaching your team this week” and “how can I help you do more of that”, then quite quickly an empowerment culture would flourish. Thoughts?

  2. Joanna Ruffle 28th June 2012 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    Totally agree about the greatest impact on staff engagement coming from direct line managers rather than the senior team.
    In addition they are often the group who feel the most ‘squeezed’ or even compromised in times of change. A huge part of the job is interpreting and translating the change agenda into digestible chunks for their team -and managing the very real implications of savings targets on staff and on service users.
    We now present our engagement survey findings through Group Manager reports so that we can identify where we have excellent engagement practitioners and how we can use these individuals as mentors or buddies for those who may be finding it more difficult.
    Interestingly where we have examples of managers who are struggling they are often excellent practitioners who have been promoted into management roles because our career structure doesnt give them any other opportunities. Which supports your second point Martin – but to date I havent got any answers. Work in progress – clearly!

  3. Martin Rayson 29th June 2012 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your comments. It is great Joanna that you are testing which managers are supporting engagement and which might impede it . This I guess will enable some targeted interventions.
    I like the idea Jeremy of getting managers to think about and ask what they can do to facilitate empowerment. Managers also have to accept that things may not be done or reports written exactly as they may have done. But what is the real risk and disadvantage of that. Managers have to focus on outcomes and empower a people to deliver to the outcomes, rather than worry too much about process.

  4. Raffaela Goodby 13th July 2012 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    Agree that middle managers are key to driving improvements – but think there needs to be a key focus on senior managers / politicians ensuring they ‘give permission’. By that I mean truly empowering and not just saying the words – and that means not pointing the finger when things go wrong.

    Dame Carol Black said the one thing that would improve the health and engagement of UK plc was working on the relationship between line manager and employee.

    Our middle managers are key to everything aren’t they – health, leadership, engagement, outcomes, productivity – no wonder they feel squeezed.

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