Australia's Middle Management Crisis

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 10:42

By Tony Gleeson

There are 500,000 reasons why Australia needs to solve the performance problems of the nation’s middle managers. That’s the number of middle managers there are in Australia and our latest survey research project confirms that many of these managers are underachieving.

Australian Institute of Management survey data shows that efforts to improve the productivity and performance of organisations are being stymied by inefficient and under skilled middle managers. The survey, Middle Managers – Evaluating Australia’s Biggest Management Resource was conducted in conjunction with Monash University and involved 1,898 business people ranging from CEOs and business owners to middle managers and aspiring managers.

Middle managers make or break an organisation. They are the ‘bridge’ in organisations that connect the goals and strategies of top level management with the ambitions and work practices of lower level staff. Therefore, middle managers are crucial to the success of any productivity or change management programs.

The survey participants said middle managers in their organisations are significantly under performing across the range of key indicators including people management, communication and leadership. As Grant Anderson FAIM, CEO of leading Australian exporter ANCA, said in theAustralian Financial Review this week: “Over the years, we’ve all been critical of middle management, but that’s a senior management problem. It is senior management’s job to pick people who have the potential for leadership roles and train them appropriately. Quite often people come up from the shop floor but have never had management training.”

People management is ranked by survey participants as the most important middle management skill ahead of communication and leadership. However, the majority (52%) of middle managers’ skills in people management are average or below average, according to their non-middle manager colleagues who participated in the survey.

Middle managers are ranked even more poorly by their colleagues on their communication and leadership skills. 55% of participants say the communication skills of middle managers in their organisations are average or below. On leadership, 59 percent say the skills of middle managers are average or below. Further, despite the critical need for middle managers to show leadership, just 24 percent of middle managers say their leadership performance is being effectively measured.

The worst ratings for middle managers from their colleagues relates to ‘strategic influence’ (70% said skills were average or below) and ‘change management’ (69% said skills were average or below).

It’s impossible to have a vibrant workplace culture and be a high achieving organisation, if your middle managers are under skilled and disengaged. It’s clear from the findings of our survey research that the role and responsibilities of middle managers deserve much greater respect in the Australian workplace. Organisations need to ensure their middle managers are appropriately skilled and they must also give their middle managers the opportunity to show what they can do, and measure their performance.

Tony Gleeson FAIM is Executive General Manager of AIM in Victoria & Tasmania.