The Challenge of the Frozen Middle

frozen middle, icicles

Are middle management frozen or just unconvinced?

At ICC, we consider ourselves lucky in many respects. One of those is our size. As a business we sit squarely in the SME category where, generally, goals can be set and decisions can be made more quickly. Goal setting occurs in a collaborative and aligned manner and new initiatives can be analysed and implemented pretty fast. In contrast, larger organisations often describe themselves as being frustratingly slow to change, finding innovation difficult and time consuming. 

This got us thinking about the process of decision-making and communication in larger organisations during times of change. Perhaps bureaucracy might be partly to blame for pace. Or perhaps it’s another oft-cited obstacle to progress, the ‘frozen middle’… 

The ‘Frozen Middle’ – a term used to stereotype middle managers who block progress due to scepticism about or unwillingness to change 

In a 2017 global survey of 500 corporate leaders conducted by The Economist, middle and line managers were pointed to as the potential obstacles to successful strategy implementation. 

Are they frozen, or just unconvinced? 

Middle management plays a pivotal role in maintaining the processes (and people) that achieve successful execution of strategic initiatives: 

  • Perhaps they need to be convinced that change is necessary, some managers are intuitive, others need more time and evidence 
  • Perhaps they’re lacking the skills to be capable of implementing change 
  • Perhaps they don’t feel motivated, their efforts are becoming more transactional 
  • Perhaps they’re afraid to take risks, real or imaginary 
  • Perhaps they fear failure, or its consequences 
  • Perhaps they’re over-tasked, wearing multiple hats or challenged around priorities 
  • Perhaps they’re resisting due to not enough/necessary resources for multiple, competing projects 
  • Perhaps they feel isolated, largely excluded from leadership meetings, not fully part of their own team and little regular interaction with their peers 
  • Perhaps they don’t feel appreciated, efforts get rewarded but they might go to division heads or to the team as a whole 

Why would these underlying reasons for resistance remain uncovered?  Could it be that the current culture doesn’t support open and honest communication or feedback? Or, could it be that the organisation is suffering from a ‘frozen top’, where senior leaders are vested in an existing business model that has supported them in the past but is becoming less fit for purpose. Perhaps accompanied by a culture that’s not evolving alongside the more dextrous needs of the business? 

The challenge of the ‘Frozen Top’ vs. ‘The Frozen Middle’ 

Senior Leaders invest energy and resource into defining a clear Vision, followed by a robust Plan, cemented by clear Implementation objectives for managers.  Then implementation stalls or slows… 

Leadership might be missing an opportunity if they view middle management ‘stuck-ness’ as simply an example of the frozen middle obstacle to change. How about viewing it as a cultural challenge that can readily be solved? 

If engaged in the process, the middle can help deliver outstanding results. Given the right conditions and appropriate support, middle managers don’t block change, they drive it: 

  • Middle managers are usually more effective at working with informal networks, they know more of the team and are closer to them, often having more influence (both positive and negative) 
  • Middle managers are more in tune with the ‘mood in camp’, understanding the needs of the team when considering change 
  • Middle managers can be super effective at finding balance between strategic direction and everyday operations 

Effort spent on gaining buy-in, coupled with unlocking key transformation skills (creativity, problem solving, networking, empathy, influence, motivation and incentive techniques) can deliver huge paybacks. Time to hit defrost! 

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