Middle managers still play an important role in organizations

It seems that at every Market, most of the conversations seem to center around which retailers came and which ones bought. While that certainly is understandable, I wonder if we sometimes overlook other critical topics, especially ones that may foreshadow major paradigm shifts.

This Market, while sitting with the head of one of the largest and most successful companies in our sector, I was privy to one of those conversations — specifically, how the pandemic was likely to challenge the play for middle managers.

To be honest, I had never burned the midnight oil thinking about middle managers and what they do. But the guy sitting across the table from me — a guy whose company employs more middle managers than any other company in the business, clearly had.

He pointed out that even before the pandemic, the need for companies to be “lean and mean” had put middle managers clearly in the hot seat.

I did some research and learned that as far back as 1993 books with titles like “Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution” was being read by the peeps in those big corner offices.

But once the pandemic hit, the absolute need to make lightning-fast decisions forced many middle managers to downshift into the fast lane of the passing track. And they had to do this at a time when more than one company exec was probably questioning the relative value middle managers were bringing to the table.

Making life even more interesting for middle managers (MMs) has been the growing reliance on technology, artificial intelligence, analytics and data to make key decisions.

And let’s not forget to factor in the work-from-home impact on the role of MMs. In many home furnishings companies, MMs also played key roles in mentoring, training, supporting, developing and communicating with all the employees that reported to them.

When the pandemic hit, it seemed like in the blink of an eye, we suddenly found ourselves in a virtual, remote and often isolated world. And that the virtual world changed essential job functions such as training and learning.

Thanks to Zoom and similar platforms, training was able to continue, but some would argue that learning, often being more experiential and social, was hampered because, for more than a year, many MMs and employees no longer worked in the same room or building because of shelter-in-place restrictions.

While the work got done and is still getting done off-site, I think that when we look back we may see that, over time, employees, and that includes MMs, may have lost focus, commitment and the ongoing human interaction to make their business models run seamlessly.

Now, to shore up both profit and volume dollars lost as a result of the pandemic, we’ve already seen some industry players cutting MMs as a means to slow up the bleeding.

And as that happens, and as more MMs are either shown the door or leave on their own, my bet is that quality control, productivity and profitability may begin to slip at a time when we can least afford that to happen.

But don’t take my word for it. A recent poll on the state of MMs conducted by Gallup seems to confirm we could be in for MM-mayhem.

Based on surveys Gallup conducted last year, manager burnout is real and getting worse.

The company tracked manager burnout at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and again through 2021, and concluded that “while the percentage of managers who reported being burned out ‘very often’ or ‘always’ was slightly higher than that of individual contributors in 2020, the gap widened considerably in 2021.”

While having stressed-out managers is never healthy, it can be especially detrimental to a company right now considering the massive shifts in the labor force.

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting record spikes in quit rates — so much so it is being called the Great Resignation — companies need to keep good employees at all levels and especially at the midmanager level.

The study also determined that specific factors that contribute to burnout can include unrealistic workloads, a lack of job clarity, a lack of support from managers, and unreasonable time pressures.

According to Gallup, companies can minimize burnout by providing ongoing and clear communication from leadership. This is especially critical to midlevel managers who typically implement leadership decisions while fostering their direct reports to buy into the decisions.

Leadership needs to manage the managers. Gallup says that just like employees, managers need to feel they are steadily developing in their work and overall lives.

Leadership needs to address the five elements of well-being — career, social, financial, physical and community — to reduce the chances of burnout.

Leadership should hire managers who thrive during change.

My market chat prompted me to Google want ads from companies in our sector looking for middle managers. 

I am using this one as an example because it underscores how critical this position can be to a company:

Leads, supports, and coaches Branch Managers within a region to ensure consistency of complying with policies, procedures, and processes as well as achieving established performance goals. The area Manager is also ultimately responsible for ensuring the highest
level of customer service throughout the region. An area Manager is a role model and leader who must solve problems, make informed decisions, and manage resources wisely to achieve maximum results with integrity and a high level of professionalism. 

Let’s face it, folks. The pandemic has not only changed the rules, but it has also burned the rule book.  

So much so, that at the Market, someone said that being in our business reminded him of that song by Stealers Wheel: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. …”

Assuming his observation is right, and that we all are stuck in the middle, that person in the middle (yes, your middle manager) can be your make-or-break person.

With that said, I’d make it a point to measure twice and cut once when it comes to your middle managers.

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