The latest research on middle management seems a bit paradoxical to me, but then I remembered an old Woody Allen joke:
Two old ladies are eating in a neighborhood diner and, as usual, complaining. "The food is so greasy, look at that, and it's overcooked and tasteless"
"Absolutely," says the other, "and such small portions".
That's kind of what is going on in the business world around the state of management- the usual complaining about how awful, needless and a waste of good oxygen middle managers are – and yet there aren't enough of them.
So on the one hand, you have organizations complaining about untrained and ineffective managers costing billions of dollars in productivity and turnover; on the other hand, we hear dire rumblings about a lack of managers and how it will be the end of business as we know it. So which is it?
The truth is, it's a bit of both. There are a lot of bad managers out there - you've probably already got faces to names as you read this, you don't need me to remind you. Companies would run a lot better if they had more qualified managers - nobody disputes that either.
So what we really need are more good managers to replace the bad ones. Simply swapping out would probably solve the problem of numbers since more good managers would reduce the rework and costs of the poor ones.
I'm not going to blame organizations for all this, tempting as that is. Yes, I have one or two ideas (from a list that grows daily), but a lot of this is down to managers themselves and the people who want to be managers.
So, my advice for companies is simple. Let managers manage. In our quest for "flatter" organizations, many have created the role of "working manager". How much that phrase makes my blood boil you have no inkling. Because what this basically means is that you're asking top performers to take on supervisory and management roles in addition to what they're already doing - all in the name of reducing a level of "bureaucracy".
But managing and doing are two completely different skills. So you end up with the wrong people doing the wrong job (that's the "tastes lousy" part), not to mention the fact that managers will naturally do what they are best at, enjoy and are measured on.
In other words, a sales manager who must still carry a personal quota is going to spend her most productive time on her own accounts rather than helping develop her team. She might still make her numbers and be a top performer, but the poor performers in her team will do worse because they're not getting the guidance they require.
For managers and those who naively think they want to be managers, I'd say this. Your development is up to you and you're out of excuses. Yeah, the nice lady from HR might not have the power to get you the training you asked for, but there are a lot of ways to improve, ranging from paying for the training yourself (gasp) to free resources like mentors and the embarrassment of riches available on the internet. Blogs, podcasts, social networks and the like.
So if there really is a demand for managers, you can step up and show them that they've overlooked you (that's the "and such small portions part").
I do have one suggestion for both parties that would help - and the much-maligned HR department can add value here. (Stop laughing, darn it, it could happen).
There has to be a communication path from the top of the company downward on what the gaps are and what the expectations of the managers are. There must then be a reporting mechanism that allows the manager to track and demonstrate what they are doing to overcome those gaps and whether they have actually put any of it to practical use.
By preparing managers for the role, and helping them do better once they get the job, the number of bad managers is reduced and there are more good ones to learn from.
The trick is that this needs to be recorded and verifiable - and made transferable in a way that good managers can prove to future employers they've done everything they can to develop and prove worthy of the distinguished title of "middle manager".
This is just one man's suggestion, but let's face it, what we've been doing (either ill-fated programs or just sitting around whining) hasn't worked. Some people just like to complain. That's fine. But some people want to change things. And you won't do that by just whining about it.