When I worked on the front line I used to say it, when I was a senior manager I used to hear it and when I was a middle manager I used to defend it. The latest policy on the use of agency staff or overtime, the new idea for making efficiency savings, the tough approach to absenteeism or the revised procedures for staff recruitment are rubbish and won’t work.
It’s uncomfortable being in the middle being responsible for ensuring senior managers’ messages are passed to the front line and their expectations carried out. There is a tendency to shoot the messenger.
Unfortunately, this means dodging the bullets from both directions because senior management don’t want to hear why their initiatives won’t work any more than front line managers want to hear yet another initiative or new set of priorities.
You can’t deflect the antagonism by saying, “don’t blame me it’s a senior management decision.” Well, you can and some do, but in practice if you don’t own the initiative you will never get your staff to commit to it and it never does any good to tell your boss it’s not happening because your staff think it’s stupid and unworkable.
Life for middle managers is particularly tough at the moment. They have felt the full impact of the public sector management cull. This is the level at which proportionately most posts have been dis-established, it’s the level at which most of the resulting redistributed work is picked up and it is also the level responsible for ensuring senior management strategies get translated into action.
Traditionally there is a lot of ambivalence about middle management. First line managers think they are the ones who deliver the service and middle managers are just a mouth piece for senior management. Senior management blame them if they think their policies have not been properly explained to staff but give them little credit if their polices and strategies work.
Both groups question why there are so many of them.
It is in the nature of middle management that your best work will go unseen and unrecognised by all but the most perceptive of observers. This is because your job is largely that of “behind the scenes fixer”. The first line managers who claim not to know what middle managers actually do are the same people who say they need more support whether that be in dealing with personality conflicts in their team, complaints from service users, undue pressure from a councillor or MP, getting HR to release posts, finance to be more flexible or dealing with staff resistance to change.
Middle managers don’t just explain polices and strategies, they take their experience of the front line and try and use it to influence how strategies will be delivered. That is why they are involved in so many projects and working groups.
As more of the change agenda has to be delivered in partnership with other organisations, senior managers find themselves more and more reliant on their middle managers to represent them at all those multi-agency meetings, workshops and conferences designed to develop a shared understanding, a common language and good working relationships at a grass roots level.
Perhaps it is time to re evaluate the role and value of middle management.