6 ways to strengthen the role of middle managers




by Jennifer Dudeck



Middle managers are critical to every business, yet their roles are often unclear, and their training may come last, if at all. And now, in our hybrid world, the role of the manager is changing again. It’s never been more important that companies recognize the critical role their managers play and provide training that aligns with the world we work in today.

As HRE recently highlighted in coverage of its What’s Keeping HR Up at Night? survey, culture remains a top concern for HR leaders, along with employee engagement and retention. Since the chat in a company cafeteria or hallway may not happen as often, the flow of information needs to be more intentional.

As Zahira Jaser, a professor and editor, writes in an HBR article based on two decades of research, managers are likely to “increasingly become channels for relationships, influence and connection.” So, how can HR leaders help managers better fill this role and, in so doing, assist the company?

Clarifying and training middle managers

Here at Red Hat, we recently clarified the role we want managers to play. We want to be known as a company with excellent managers. And if we expect managers to be excellent, we must provide them with excellent support. We boiled it down to two things we need our managers to do: Lead the business and lead their people.

What was eye-opening was just how unprepared so many of our managers felt to do the first of those two things. When we surveyed our managers, only about half said they were well prepared to drive business outcomes aligned to company goals; understand the industry, the business and customers; and manage, protect and optimize the business.

Meanwhile, eight in 10 were well prepared to build a healthy and high-performing team, and 92% said they were well prepared to help associates be their best and contribute to Red Hat.

Managers as leaders of business

To better set up managers for success in leading the business, they should be expected to:

Connect work to strategy

One of the most important things managers can do for their teams is to illustrate how the team’s work supports the overarching company strategy. Whether it’s a team project or an individual one, managers should be able to finish this sentence: “This is important because it connects to the goal we have in our strategy to … .” If a manager cannot be clear about the connection, it might not be a project for the worker or the team.

Know how the company works

Our strategy incorporates a framework for how managers and their teams should work together. First, we prioritize activities. Then, we think about best practices that may be applied to improve priorities. Next, we simplify to create clarity. Finally, we act with intent, driving real focus on an initiative.

This four-step framework helps managers drive an approach where we always iterate toward better. However a company works, all managers should know the process.

Manage, protect and optimize

Managers need to understand the industry, business, customers and the forces in the market that require reaction. This will protect the business and help it grow. This understanding also influences team priorities, people management and opportunities for people growth. At Red Hat, we regularly host an open forum for managers focused on these issues.

Managers as leaders of teams

To better set managers up for success in leading teams, they should be expected to:

Build a healthy, high-performing team environment

Employee surveys tell us that nothing influences the experience of being an employee more than a manager. Managers need to be present in communication with employees. That means understanding what someone says and showing interest with follow-up questions. Limiting distractions and actively listening are both key, as is showing empathy.

Managers who care build trust with employees, and employees who trust their managers are more loyal and productive and can be more easily approached with constructive criticism.

Help their team be their best

Business functions better with clear goals, and so do people who bring business to life. Last year, we began requiring quarterly connections between managers and employees. These conversations revolve around measurable goals, feedback and development opportunities. Consistent, one-to-one feedback (in person when possible) strengthens the manager/employee relationship.

Our best managers help employees find the sweet spot where the organization’s needs overlap with their passion and talents.

Be clear on expectations. Friction in a relationship often occurs when people don’t know what is expected. Middle managers who are clear on expectations can reduce that friction and strengthen relationships by doing so.

When expectations are met, managers should reward employees. Clear guidance on linking performance to rewards, such as bonuses or equity grants, is crucial.

All of the above forge connections that enable managers to lead better—and they create guideposts so managers can lead their teams to create the outcomes the business needs.

Source: HRExecutive

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