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Why middle management being upset is bad for innovation

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I’ve written a bit about the role of middle managers in the past year.  They get a bit of a bad rap it seems, often regarded as unnecessary gate keepers that obfuscate the flow of ideas and information through their organizations.

The reality isn’t quite like that.  A 2011 paper by Wharton’s Ethan Mollick for instance found that middle managers are key, especially in knowledge intensive industries.

Mollick suggests that middle managers are especially important in industry that require innovative employees such as biotech, computing and media.

“It is in these knowledge-intensive industries where variation in the abilities of middle managers – the “suits” he refers to in his paper — has a “particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of individuals who are assigned innovative roles,” Mollick says.

Screening ideas

This perspective was supported in a more recent paper looking at the role of middle managers in innovation, and in particular their ‘gatekeeping’ role in the flow of ideas.  It suggests that it is the conservative evaluation of ideas by senior managers that often results in middle managers becoming conservative themselves with what they pass on.

The findings suggest that there is an often valuable role of middle managers in counter-balancing the sometimes narrow view of senior leaders.  The researchers conclude with a suggestion that we need to better understand the trade off between screening ideas and passing them on.

“Ultimately, top management needs to decide how the costs of screening ideas compare to the costs of omitting good ideas,”they say.“What we can tell them, however, is how they can adjust the idea funnel to either see more or fewer suggestions from their subordinates end up on their table – by understanding the effects hierarchies have on the behavior of their employees.”

So it matters that middle managers are unhappy?

So recent research revealing that middle managers are likely to be the least happy employees in the organization matters.

The study collected engagement data from over 300,000 employees across a number of organizations and found that the unhappiest of all were those in the middle.

What is it that’s making them so unhappy?  It turned out there were a number of grumbles, but they included things such as:

  • not feeling valued
  • that they see how ineffective the organization is
  • when they raise issues, they often get ignored
  • their work lacks meaning
  • others get the glory whilst they do the work
  • there appear few career opportunities for them
  • and the biggest of all was poor leadership

So quite a list.  Does it matter?  I mean in terms of numbers, they represent quite a small portion of the overall workforce.  As the studies highlighted at the beginning of this post say however, their impact is pretty big, especially where innovation is concerned.

That many of the grumbles of the middle managers are in areas that directly concern innovation too suggests that the organizations studied in this research really aren’t getting it right at all.

All of which is something of a concern, isn’t it?

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