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Why Middle Managers Are a Company's Hidden Superpower Middle managers have the ability to support and enhance your organizational success.

By Sam Rockwell

Key Takeaways

  • Middle managers serve as conduits between upper and frontline management.
  • Like translators at the borders of two or more cultures and languages, middle managers work at the borders of two distinct subcultures and languages within the organization.
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When I set out to study organizational identity and the role that organizational leaders play in creating and reinforcing that identity, I expected to uncover some surprising results. Even then, I did not expect what I learned from Ervis Dinkel, a director in a financial management firm. She described her role in middle management as that of the translator — adding that middle managers are responsible for listening and communicating expertly all the way up and down the organization.

This descriptor struck me because I have worked with many translators in my decades of nonprofit and consulting work worldwide. As I thought more, I realized that "translator" is a perfect term for middle managers' role in propagating organizational identity. Let me explain.

Translation begins with in-depth listening and then involves converting the original message into words and a delivery that another party will understand. This skill requires constant code-switching and cross-cultural sensitivity because communication needs to be bidirectional and continuous for shared understanding to result. This is no small feat.

Related: Why We Should Be Talking About Organizational Identity and Not Just Company Culture

The same is true for middle managers, who serve as conduits between upper and frontline management. Like translators working at the borders of two or more cultures and languages, middle managers work at the borders of two distinct subcultures and languages within the organization.

As articulated by Robert L. Katz, a strategy consultant who had served on Dartmouth, Harvard and Stanford faculties, upper management is concerned with conceptual and strategic matters, slightly less with interpersonal concerns, and even less with the technical details of how the work is carried out.

In contrast, frontline managers and individual contributors focus on technical details, with the least concern for strategic matters. Standing in the gap are the middle managers, who must have robust competencies in all three domains because they must speak the language and understand the concerns of all levels for information to flow effectively throughout the organization. It is not enough to pass down senior leader mandates and expect the frontline to implement them. Nor is it sufficient to simply report to upper management what first-level managers and individual contributors are experiencing.

Related: 3 Practices for Leaders in a Polarized World

According to Dinkel, an effective organizational translator requires significant mental and emotional energy. When it is done right, organizational performance is supported and enhanced. When it's not done well, communication breaks down, misunderstandings proliferate, and initiatives face an increased risk of failure.

The translation challenge can be particularly acute when it comes to matters of who the organization is and what we need to do collectively and individually.

For example, these concerns usually center on the language of "organizational identity" at the upper levels, while "culture" is the terminology used more frequently at lower levels. These are not synonymous concepts: Whereas culture refers to the shared assumptions and values that culminate in habitual patterns of behavior within the organization, identity refers to those characteristics of the organization that are core, distinctive and enduring — adding up to "who" the organization essentially is.

Related: How Business Leaders Can Foster an Innovative Work Culture

Both identity and culture are powerful, influencing each other, yet they are not the same. Thus, as translators, middle managers must understand these differences and take extra care to translate messages into the language and lifeworld of each subculture. Only then can shared understanding develop, leading to alignment among culture, identity, strategy, and tactics. In turn, the organization can act in concert as one entity.

Four tactics are helpful for carrying out the middle management translator role.

1. See what they see

German philosopher Edmund Husserl and later phenomenologists developed the concept of the lifeworld to suggest that people perceive, make sense of, and interact with the world depending on their subjective experiences, surroundings, and interactions. It follows that senior leaders operate within different lifeworlds than do middle managers, and both of those lifeworlds are different from the lifeworlds of frontline managers and individual contributors. Middle managers must become familiar with all these lifeworlds and their differences in order to anticipate how each level may interpret organizational communications and, in turn, encode messages appropriately.

2. Speak like a native

Translators must develop fluency in the vocabulary, idioms, and nuances of the multiple languages in which they operate. As a middle manager, you must speak the languages of senior leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors like a native. Specifically, some concepts may not have direct equivalents across levels due to cultural and language nuances. Such differences can significantly impact the meaning of a text. Therefore, middle managers need to engage in frequent interaction and immersion at each organizational level to deeply understand the viewpoints, needs, and concerns of each group.

3. Communicate whole messages

Effective translation requires communicating not only the text but also the tone, emotion and subtle cues to convey the intended meaning. In this way, middle management translators convey the spirit, meaning, and content of what is most important to each party. Without whole messages, the inspiration behind senior leaders' vision may fall flat, or conversely, the dire technical challenges experienced by the frontline may get lost during upward communication.

4. Navigate your biases

Personal bias is inevitable; therefore, be mindful of it and control it. Depending on your personality and predispositions, you may find yourself oriented toward shepherding and translating what is happening at the top to your direct reports. Alternately, you may be more naturally drawn toward bringing direct reports' perspectives to senior leadership strategy sessions. It is not uncommon to feel drawn in one direction and fatigued moving in the other direction. Be aware of these tendencies and make time for self-care so that you have the energy to navigate up and down. Finally, be intentional about spending equal time and attention translating in both directions because both are essential to the healthy and aligned functioning of the organization.

Sam Rockwell

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO at Rockwell&Co

Sam Rockwell is a consultant, coach, and author specializing in helping medium to large businesses across sectors, industries, and the globe dramatically scale their results and profits by using the lens of identity to optimize their strategies, leadership development, and team performance.

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