Bosses have just three months in which to fill middle manager vacancies before the lack of leadership and direction resulting from their absence has a detrimental effect on morale and productivity, a joint British and U.S survey has suggested.
Perhaps less surprisingly, the study of 400 HR directors, split evenly between the two countries, also concluded that middle managers, long considered the work-horse of management, are critical to the success of an organisation.
Nearly two thirds – 64 per cent – of the UK HR managers polled by recruitment firm MRINetwork felt middle managers were critical to success, compared with 79 per cent of those in the U.S.
The most crucial function for middle managers was in maintaining company morale (73 per cent), said the UK HR managers, with customer satisfaction next at 68 per cent, followed by hiring and team building (63 per cent) and sales and productivity (58 per cent).
In the U.S, by comparison, customer satisfaction came top, at 74 per cent, followed by company morale (73 per cent), hiring and team building (66 per cent) and implementation of a chief executive's vision (66 per cent).
In both countries, it was clear bosses wanted their middle managers to manage rather than think – innovation trailed behind sharply, with only 38 per cent and 42 per cent in the UK and U.S respectively naming it as a critical job function.
Intriguingly, the survey found that in both countries a void in middle management could only exist for at most three months before it began to have a negative impact on morale and the ability of employees to perform their daily jobs.
This suggests one of two things: that employees can survive perfectly well for quite a few weeks without being hand-held by managers (although eventually there will be an effect) or, as MRINetwork argued, it is critical hiring managers take immediate steps to fill vacancies before any effect is felt.
"Middle management represents the beating heart of today's successful companies," said Steve Mills, MRINetwork senior vice-president of operations.
"For a business to succeed in today's market, companies must be prepared to make a strong investment in hiring and supporting critical impact players in the mid-management layer of their organisations," he added.
He continued: "But conversely, middle managers still have some work to do to shake the baggage that they are not as innovative as their senior peers.
"They are clearly innovative, but they need to market this innovation in a more effective manner to ensure their accomplishments are being recognised," he concluded.
On the three-month issue, he argued that such a timeframe had never been documented before and therefore needed to serve as a significant "wake-up call" to business leaders.
"In many companies, the middle management layer serves as the keystone that links senior management with junior team members. When that link is interrupted, the repercussions are sudden and far-reaching," said Mills.