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Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

by Liz Mellon

If we think about the first 70 or so years of the last century, any barrier to getting business done was firmly placed at the door of the workers. In fact, this bias stems from the industrial revolution. The most famous consultant of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who used engineering principles to increase productivity dramatically in factories. His underlying belief was that people were lazy and would take any opportunity they could to slack. He believed that they needed to be controlled by managers or experts (in the organizational principles he advocated) in order to get a good day’s work out of them.

By the 1980s, the blame had shifted up to middle managers, formerly considered to be the glue holding the organization together but now seen as the roadblock to success. Who would volunteer to be a middle manager when these are the kind of labels used to describe you? This “layer of concrete” was blamed for failing to translate a perfectly good strategy from the top into actions and deliverables for the workers. Roger Smith, chairman and CEO at General Motors from 1981, referred to middle managers as “the frozen middle.”

Leaders tried to eliminate middle managers by creating leaner, more empowered organizations with fewer layers that were focused on delivering service to customers. Tom Peters, who was the first management writer to have a management book reach the best-seller list and the first management expert to be called a guru, wrote, “Middle Management as we have known it since the railroads invented it after the Civil War is dead. Therefore middle managers as we have known them are cooked geese.”

The “cooked geese” ranks of middle managers were decimated during the 1980s and 1990s—and it’s not over yet. The Economist had a recent article featuring Unilever, the food and healthcare giant, in a story about consistently reducing layers of management from a startling 36 tiers at the start of this century to 6 levels today. As The Economist put it, “Rising through the grades at such places was often a reward for longevity, not competence. Many big firms simply accumulated managers over time. It is little surprise, therefore, that recent cost-cutting efforts have focused on the middle manager.”

But middle management and bureaucracy are not synonymous; it depends what they are expected to do. For example, we know that an individual’s relationship with his or her line manager is critical to motivation and productivity. A good manager can get extraordinary performance out of a team, while a bad manager makes people quit. Good people managers, with enough initiative to balance the needs of the company’s day-to-day operations against the need to implement the wider strategy, can still play a valuable role in organizations today.

It may save money in the short run to cut middle managers, especially if you have let recruitment or promotion at this level get out of control, although many believe that the savings are illusory. But there is no evidence that the organization gets any better at strategy execution with fewer middle managers. In fact, the opposite may happen. According to Wharton School faculty member Joe Ryan; “In cost-cutting times, knee-jerk reactions happen. There is a paradox where middle managers are essential, but end up sacked when restructuring occurs. It’s a rough situation because the people needed to run the most important projects are in the middle.”

The problem with strategy execution today lies at the top—not with the workers or with middle managers.

Liz Mellon of Duke CE is author (with Simon Carter) of The Strategy of Execution (McGraw Hill, 2013) and Inside the Leader’s Mind (FT Prentice Hall 2011).

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