Tim Gould, Editor of HR Morning once said: “I’ve been promoted to middle management. I never thought I’d sink so low”.
He was talking about people who spend years aspiring to reach a middle management position and end up staying there.
Middle management grows like Topsy inside organisations of any size. By the time your business has reached its first decade they become numerically significant. Soon they are sufficiently established in their habits to justify the descriptor ‘the treacle layer’. Named after the sticky uncrystallised syrup that’s a by-product of the sugar refining process.
Middle Managers should contribute to your organisation in three ways:Convey the vision of the company, its values, plans and activities. In the right language, at the right pace and … consistently.
Act as role models to junior employees, demonstrating behaviours such as “dress up, show up and never give up” whilst keeping customer experience to the fore.
Make positive use of their learnings from many years of working inside the operation. This gold dust of experience needs to be handed down to others. It often provides essential guidance on what to do when things go wrong from time to time.
Middle managers who do this for you are valuable and should be protected during restructuring activities. But those who do not help you, tend to slow you down. Hence the name ‘treacle layer’. This is becoming a very significant problem in developed economies; particularly in those where legislation protects long serving staff.
Here in East Africa we have institutions and companies well enough established to feel drag from the middle level. I remember it from my earliest days here, nearly three decades ago. Colleagues brought in to reform established organisations met significant resistance from a level who openly described them as ‘passing clouds.’ “Don’t panic,” they advised peers and juniors, “he’ll blow away eventually and we’ll still be here.”
I see the treacle layer in some of the organisations I help. They take a minimal part in discussions about change, often saying absolutely nothing in response to the most direct questions. Many use endless repetition and re-illustration of the point they are making (usually explaining why change is not possible). Others say yes to ideas, but only because they are not yet ready to say no. In the face of this, a CEO must cascade his messaging overtly and unequivocally. The treacle layer is always looking for the slightest sign that the boss doesn’t really mean it.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside