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Soft in the middle: learning to manage others before the promotion

Monday, October 26, 2015 - 12:59

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' Lewis Carroll

In 1983, Kanter’s research around middle management success stated that middle managers needed three things: information, resources and support.  That was 32 years’ ago.

In 2014, the Australian National Commission of Audit Report claimed that public sector middle managers lack information about how to manage people; resources to enable them to manage people; and support from senior managers to manage people.

Yet, according to research led by Professor Deborah Blackman of UNSW Canberra, managers can spend up to 80% of their time managing people.  32 years on and so little has changed.

What’s a middle manager? Often they are technical specialists who became really good at technical things and then became a manager. A hard working person who has done well and is rewarded with…more work!

Professor Blackman’s research shows that this is the way most managers are promoted.  They are high performers in task related roles who are promoted into management. Fair enough; after all, how else do you identify potential? 

How do you identify management capability in people who are not yet managers?  We assess what is evident. For most people stepping into their first management role, their technical expertise in a non-management role is what’s evident and what’s assessed.

This is not the only problem.  What happens next also matters.

AIM Education and Training (AIMET) is working with UNSW (Canberra) exploring the challenges experienced by public sector middle managers and what can be done to support them better. Although this is public sector research, the findings should benefit all managers.

Together, AIMET and UNSW have spoken with over 100 middle managers across Australia.  We’ve asked them about their challenges, the support they require and the support they get, the management education they attend and their suggestions for improved management support.

Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, we’ve identified a few interesting issues.

  1. Time and money, or the lack of it.  In the government sector, austerity measures have hit hard and middle managers have not gone unaffected.  There’s little time or money for management education.
  2. Staff cuts.  Public sector professionals don’t tend to reduce public programs or policy development.  Instead, they increase workloads.  As a consequence, who has time for training?
  3. An imbalance of management and leadership development.  While leadership development is progressing quite nicely, management education is lagging.  It’s time to get back to basics.  But not the easy basics; the hard basics.  The ‘soft skills’ of management.  The people management stuff.
  4. Timing.  Management education comes too late.  Rather than building capability before the promotion takes place, people are promoted first and then offered training and development.  No surprise that the new managers are often too busy to attend!

Let’s assume that the middle managers out there are intelligent people. That’s a pretty safe bet, as is the fact that they are willing, and often eager, to learn and improve.

The UNSW Canberra and AIMET research suggests that there are some tendencies taking place that are worth reconsidering:

  1. Tasks and outputs matter more than people and processes. Middle managers are promoted because of technical or specialist expertise, not management prowess.  Once there, they’re expected to deliver. Management development doesn’t happen.
  2. The greatest challenges relate to people management, but the support for this is lacking. Again, tasks gazump people.
  3. Middle management development programs are, for the most part, quite good.  But the wrong people are attending.  Potential stars are nominated.  Those who need the training the most, miss out.  
  4. The popular ’70-20-10’ model for management and leadership development is widely used, but not used very well.  Opportunity and support for on the job learning must improve.
  5. Management training is offered to managers who are too busy to attend.  It should target potential managers to build competence and capability before they get promoted.

So what can be done?

UNSW Canberra and AIMET suggest that organisations would improve productivity by:

  • Offering mentoring and coaching and opportunities for peer learning where people share management tips and strategies for success.
  • Shifting from training to development. We need more experiential opportunities for people to develop outside of the training room.  We need more support for development from peers and senior managers.  The responsibility for capability does not rest solely on the shoulders of the individual managers themselves.
  • Changing the language.  The ‘soft skills’ of management are the hardest to develop.  We need better approaches to transferring these across the workplace and we need to recognise that they are the ‘difficult, core’ skills of middle management.

To the managers out there crying out for support, don’t despair.  UNSW Canberra and AIMET are on the case!  Our research continues and we’ll share all as we learn what support is really needed for you to be the best you can.  In the meantime, we’re sharing our insights and heading off to the Australian New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM) conference to present our research in middle management development.  When we’re back, we’ll hit the road again and be out there supporting Australia’s middle management champions.

Reference and Conference Paper:

Swimming or Drowning: middle management experience in the public service.

Blackman, D; Buick, F., Faifua, D., Forsyth, M., O’Donnell, M., Johnson, S., and West, D.

Accepted for presentation at the Australia New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM) Annual Conference, Queenstown NZ, December 2015.