Middle managers — keeping the engine running smoothly

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Tradie HR director Leigh Olsen explains how to support key middle managers and get them working at their best.

Recently I had a conversation with a good friend who works as a middle manager. He looked exhausted and said that he was “over people” — in particular, managing his staff.

He added that he worked long hours in his role and, for him, he felt that it was a thankless task.

He’s tired of people not turning up to work and him getting it in the neck from those higher above, who blame him for their absences and anything else that goes astray.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of their role for many of our great middle managers. These include site foremen and team leaders, who regularly find themselves promoted to these positions without asking for it, and quickly get pushed out of a comfort zone that is scary and, often, lonely.

They’re not sure who to ask for help, and fear letting both sides down — the team and their own managers.  

So what do they do? They solider on, stumbling their way through the day, sometimes getting it right. But more often than not, it’s due to luck rather than good management.

However, often if there’s not enough support, training or awareness, middle managers can let the pressure take over by demonstrating a range of negative behaviours.

Yet these middle managers are the key to your team’s “engine” running smoothly, so how can you get your middle managers to work at their best?

Check that your middle manager is the right person for the job

Middle management requires management skills, and an ability to understand all sides of the picture. Check that your middle manager has this ability, and that you have the right job and the right person for it.

If they have some ability but lack managerial ability, then get them support and training to help upskill in their first year.

Get them a buddy who has strong management skills to pass on their knowledge and have their back in the first year.

When choosing the right middle manager, good questions to ask are:

Does your manager have the tools and the autonomy to succeed in their role?  

How will you or their boss support them in their first year?

Does your manager want to be a manager, or would they prefer another role in the company?

Remember, not all people actually want to be a middle manager, so always check. I once worked with a manager who was terrified of having one-to-ones with his staff. He would put them off and avoid them at all costs, to the detriment of his team’s growth and development.

When he was asked if he would prefer another role not managing people, he broke down. He was thankful to be finally relieved of this function as he didn’t want the role in the first place, taking it because he felt he had to if he wanted to progress in the company.

Foster great management

Research has shown that management is one of the most, if not the most, important roles in a company. Managers are charged with the daily, weekly and monthly activities used to guide, support and motivate their staff.

Chief executives create strategies, and marketing people create demand, but when it comes to dealing with customers, building products and developing solutions, middle managers make things happen.

If you want your mid-level managers to step up, then they’ll need to be continually supported and developed.

I recently held a one-hour workshop on a building site for a group of site foremen. We had an honest discussion about what they could and couldn’t say to their people.

Some honestly thought it was ok to text “get your lazy arse in here now”, while others used more colourful language.

They didn’t have the first clue about anything associated with employment law obligations, and that employers have to “act in good faith” and be “fair and reasonable” in all that they do.

Just that little bit of training around what to do and say in certain situations gave those supervisors enough confidence to be able to tackle the next time one of their team didn’t show up for work — without a “lazy arse” reference in sight.

The right training will give managers a clear idea about what is acceptable and what is not. They themselves need to model the right behaviours and create a welcoming work environment.

Their position of authority comes with special responsibilities, and they are required to treat all people fairly. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the law.

Establishing and maintaining company communication

Right from day one as a new middle manager, explain to your managers the role they play in the bigger picture, and help them understand what and how you want them to communicate. Regularly check in with them about communicating to their teams.

Sometimes middle managers won’t filter down company information to their teams as they are not sure they are permitted to, or sometimes they choose not to, using this a power play.

By getting your managers personally engaged with your company’s communication, they will be better able to communicate your important messages to the frontline.

Use these three tips to make sure you’re helping to support your middle managers, and avoid them feeling like they’re over people and over their job, instead giving them the right tools to be at the centre of keeping your company’s engine running smoothly.

Helping middle managers become better people managers is key to what we do at Tradie HR. Give us a call to help your managers get their people stuff right! or visit www.tradiehr.co.nz.