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Jane’s World: The Daunting Role of a Middle Manager

Efficiency, engagement and innovation start in the middle.

Jane is a middle manager in the federal government. Jane is responsible for translating broad objectives established by her leadership into manageable activities for her and her employees. Jane also performs technical work because her office is significantly understaffed. She also develops her employees and is committed to increasing their capacity to do their jobs more effectively.

Amid her daily managerial duties, Jane maintains a passion for trying to be creative within her agency, but often confronts both limited time and limited senior management support to engage in innovative activities. Nevertheless, Jane strives to:

  • Create new ways for improving performance in her office.
  • Listen to and act upon input from her employees and customers.
  • Collect better data to support more informed decision-making, well-considered risk-taking, and the implementation of efficient work processes.

Welcome to Jane’s world and the world of many other middle managers in the federal government.

Middle managers have a tough job, according to Ethan Mollick, a Wharton School professor of management, because they are managing a finite set of resources, they don’t have control over everyone’s actions, they can frustrate people around them who are not interested in changing direction, and they must go in a direction – even if it’s an unpopular one – that ensures project success. Sound familiar?

We offer three suggestions for federal managers to consider in confronting these challenges.

Ask the Right Questions

Successful managers build rapport with their employees by demonstrating continually that they are humble enough to admit that they do not know everything. They welcome the opportunity to learn from their employees by asking questions and seeking front-line insights both inside and outside their organizations. For some, asking questions seems like a sign of weakness or it reveals a lack of command of the issues at hand. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Effective performance management begins with insightful questions about data and continues with progress in answering those questions. What questions do we have that we don’t have answers to? What data and information do we need to answer those questions? What contextual or leading indicators can we identify to inform better decision-making? Insightful performance-based questions in your office may serve as the catalyst and model for effective performance management in other parts of your agency.

Identify the Root Causes of Problems

Federal managers are uniquely positioned to provide significant innovation in the federal workplace by engaging staff in discovering the root cause of work inefficiencies and impediments. Middle managers may possess insights from experiences that senior leaders may never encounter. Middle managers have the ability to recognize emerging trends and challenges and offer low-cost, simple and innovative solutions. For example, an increased backlog in applications pending review may be solved by assigning more staff to one facet of the work flow, sampling of work products, or by providing better instructions to applicants.

Effective managers not only act as catalysts for improved performance outcomes, but also serve as change agents for empowering employees to transform their work processes to be as easy, efficient, productive and satisfying as possible. Judge Gerald Ray of the Social Security Administration, for example, has aptly demonstrated the significance of root-cause analysis in improving work processes within his agency. By employing root-cause analysis, Ray and his colleagues have developed optimum work processes, quality assurance premised on continuing data validation, and efficient tools and techniques that enhance work productivity, freeing up employee time for other work priorities. “You get the most bang for your buck when you help front-line staff fix the systems they operate in,” he says.

While middle managers may not possess the strategic authority to reinvent every organizational process or to transform an organization’s culture, they do have the capacity to diagnose and fix certain problems within their own work domains. Part of root cause analysis may include assigning employees in a team-effort to examine work flow and design and testing hypotheses and possible solutions for improvements.   

Let Them Grow, or They Will Go

Most employees want to be challenged. They want to change things. They want to fix what’s broken. If asking for your permission impedes your trusted employees’ progress, then provide them with the autonomy to work their way through a problem by supporting their efforts and backing them up if something goes amiss. If you’re actively supporting efficiency, it’s worth the risk, and your employees will thank you for it. Numerous surveys indicate that a major reason employees leave their jobs is that they are dissatisfied with their manager. Providing support for their creativity and autonomy goes a long way in building mutual trust with your employees.

As a manager, you should feel the utmost allegiance to your employees. After all, they’re your team. They continually look to you for guidance, inspiration and support. It’s your job to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed and remove impediments. Think about development opportunities, including rotations so they can gain new skills, even if it causes short-term burden on your organization. You should strive to make them look great and to enhance their individual and collective efficacy.  

We understand this is all easier said than done. Nevertheless, if you want the highest levels of employee engagement and operational excellence, embrace the opportunity to demonstrate your true value as a middle manager. We need more people like you across the federal government. We need more people like Jane.

John R. Malgeri, J.D., Ph.D., is senior adviser to the chief human capital officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department. Jeffrey E. Press is the Government Performance Practice leader at Socrata. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not represent the perspectives of any federal agency or other organization.

(Image via Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock.com)