The Middle Management Crunch

Prof Henry Mintzberg - The Middle Management Crunch

In the international HR community, a group of professionals traditionally noted for a collegiate, sharing approach to their work, a potentially messy conflict is brewing. On one side of the philosophical divide are those that believe that all employees should be regarded as ‘talent’. And on the other are the traditionalists, who still adhere to the belief that training and development budgets should be focused on what they term key staff, the movers and shakers who apparently make businesses bigger, better and more profitable. And at HR conferences and workshops around the world tempers are becoming increasingly frayed.

This, however, is no mere frivolous argument about which end of a boiled egg to open first. Instead it is increasingly impacting on the working lives of that often neglected, but vital groups of workers – middle management.

According to a new report by the Ashridge Business School in the UK, middle managers are simply not getting their fair slice of the training and development pie. Apparently, while 73% of middle managers say they work in an environment that claims to support learning and development only around a half of them are actually experiencing it in practice and a quarter of them believe that in reality their companies actually see personal development as something of a luxury. “All too often the focus is on senior executives and future leaders,” says Ashridge’s Hamish Scott. “Yet middle managers are a crucial filter between board strategy and day-to-day operational demands. Overlooking this critical function is short-sighted.”

A study by the leadership development institute, Mannaz, back in 2010 suggested that, not only are middle managers under-represented on formal training courses, many of them are consciously avoiding them. And the reasons seems to be a form of ‘training fatigue’ – a perception that conventional training programmes rarely serve their particular needs. This, of course, doesn’t mean that middle management stops learning. Instead it tends to take a DIY approach to development, undertaking its own reading, researching via the internet or joining physical or online networking groups to share ‘war stories’. But if this NCO class of the corporate world is allowed to absent itself from training programmes it will takes a wealth of knowledge and experience away with it, thereby reducing the value of formal training for everyone else. And non-participation may be just the first step in a process of disengagement whereby middle managers stop identifying with their employers aims and aspirations.

The solution according to Henry Mintzberg, professor at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management is not just to supply formal training per se, but training that delivers clear, measurable and, perhaps, most importantly, immediate benefits to this key group. A vociferous critic of much traditional business education, Mintzberg is the brains behind the International Masters in Practicing Management, a program delivered by a syndicate of schools in Brazil, Canada, China, India and the UK. The premise of the program is that experience and a reflective mindset are fundamental to the development of effective managers, and that the sharing of experience in a moderated environment is much more powerful than the sort of lecture style teaching seen in so many MBA classrooms. In a rejection of the usual case study methodology, participants focus their efforts on the challenges they and their peers face in the day-to-day workplace, and apply the solutions they have developed with classmates as soon as every learning session comes to an end.

Whether this approach will ever overtake the traditional MBA completely is, of course open to debate. But when it comes middle management, disillusioned with theory but still thirsty for knowledge, guidance and the support of a peer network, it could provide the reengagement and revitalisation the corporate world so badly needs.

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