Middle Managers are a Productivity 'Roadblock': Survey Shows

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 10:09


Efforts to improve the productivity and performance of Australian organisations are being stymied by inefficient and under skilled middle managers according to the findings of a major research survey released today.

The Australian Institute of Management 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.

There are around half a million middle managers in Australia (Australian Institute of Management estimate based on ATO data that shows 1.2 million Australians list their occupation as ‘manager’).

“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,” said Tony Gleeson, executive general manager, Australian Institute of Management.

“The survey participants said middle managers in their organisations are significantly underperforming across the range of key indicators including people management, communication and leadership.”

People management was 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 were ranked even more poorly by their colleagues on their communication and leadership skills. Fifty-five percent of participants said the communication skills of middle managers in their organisations were average or below. On leadership, 59 percent said the skills of middle managers were average or below. Further, despite the critical need for middle managers to show leadership, just 24 percent of middle managers said their leadership performance was being effectively measured.

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

Middle managers’ performance in the key skill of ‘overseeing staff performance’ was roundly criticised by colleagues. An average of 59 percent of survey participants said middle managers’ skills in overseeing staff performance in their organisations were average or below. Even 57 percent of middle managers described their performance in overseeing staff performance as 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 and follow-on focus group session 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 them on their performance.

“Too many middle managers are feeling ignored and unloved and that needs to change if organisations are to drive productivity and performance improvements.”

The survey found that 53 percent of middle managers don’t believe their employers are fulfilling promises made to them and 58 percent don’t think there is a good chance to get ahead in their organisations.

Other key findings

  • 24% of organisations surveyed employ more than 100 middle managers
  • 40% of organisations surveyed have more 500+ staff working at levels below middle management
  • Survey participants in large organisations with more than 5,000 people are the ones most likely to be critical of middle managers’ leadership skills with 71% saying they are average or below average
  • Middle managers have a false confidence about their own alibility to ‘manage other managers’ – just 27% of them say their skills are average or below. Yet, over half of their colleagues (64%) give them an average/below average rating for this skill
  • The gaps in the ratings of middle managers and non-middle managers are greatest in ‘Leadership’ (14% of middle managers give their leadership skills a negative rating vs. 59% of non-middle managers), ‘Two-way communication flow’ (13% vs. 55%), ‘People management’ (12% vs. 52%), ‘Team building’ (16% vs. 56%) and ‘Change management’ (29% vs. 69%)
  • Many Australian organisations have cut back their number of middle managers. Organisations with more than 5,000 employees are the ones most likely to have experienced cuts (39% compared to 28% for organisations with 1,001 to 5,000 employees).

Download the Middle Managers – Evaluating Australia’s Biggest Management Resource[PDF]

For further information, please contact Leigh Funston, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Research, Australian Institute of Management, Melbourne. Phone 03 9534 8181 | Mobile 0414 866 697