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Rethinking the Role of the Government Middle Manager

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
October 6, 2023

It was a college class that turned me into a Tom Peters fanboy. In my senior year, I took the course “Technology and Human Values.” The professor was a captivating lecturer who told us about his management consulting career. One day, he wheeled in a TV and popped a tape into the VCR. We watched a documentary about Tom Peters’ book, In Search of Excellence, for the next hour. Inspired by the program, I finally decided on a career goal of organizational development.

The early 1990s was an excellent time for rethinking how organizations worked. Michael Hammer championed the reengineering movement in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article. Peter Senge published The Learning Organization (1990), which I brought on my first day at work at the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. And there was the steady stream of Peters’ books, which I listened to as I made the hour-long commute to work in my four years at the Cabinet.

In 1992, I read Osborne and Ted’s Reinventing Government and dreamed of going to Washington, D.C., to help government work better. I realized my dream in 1996 when I became a Presidential Management Fellow and worked on Vice President Gore’s reinvention task force in President Clinton’s second term. However, the initial enthusiasm for reengineering and reinvention began to wane because of a fundamental error in the rush to make organizations work better.

“I wasn’t smart enough about that [organizational development]. I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficiently appreciative of the human dimension. I’ve learned that’s critical.” (Michael Hammer, quoted in the November 26, 1996 issue of The Wall Street Journal (p. A1))

Fire All the Middle Managers!

The common theme in Peters’ early books was to get rid of middle managers. According to Peters, the reengineering experts, and the reinvention gurus, middle managers were to blame for bloated bureaucracy, unnecessary costs and frontline employee disengagement. The promise was to get rid of the middle layers in organizations and everything will work better. Thus, the era of downsizing, rightsizing and flattening layers began.

After a few years of reducing the number of middle managers, organizations realized they had lost an essential part of what makes organizations work. Numerous studies, including the famous Google study, “Project Oxygen,” firmly established the value of middle managers—even in public agencies. According to Morgan, Bacon, Bunch, Cameron and Deis (1996), middle managers help make public agencies more responsive, more efficient and more sensitive to the needs of citizens (“What Middle Managers Do in Local Government: Stewardship of the Public Trust and the Limits of Reinventing Government,” Public Administration Review, p. 365).

Power to the Middle Managers!

In these post-COVID times, organizations are again rediscovering middle managers’ value. Schaninger, Hancock and Field (2023) write, “[t]hey [managers] are an essential link between the front line and the senior leaders who are shaping and guiding strategy. To meet the demands of the new world of work, though, managers must be allowed to shed their roles as paper pushers, bureaucrats and rule enforcers and reinvent themselves as coaches, connectors, navigators and talent managers (Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work, pp. 15-16).

Schaninger, Hancock and Field are McKinsey consultants who researched the barriers preventing middle managers from succeeding in their most important job—managing talent. According to the authors, middle managers experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than frontline workers and senior executives. That is because middle managers must manage up and down at the same time. Middle managers must have “[e]motional intelligence, resilience, adaptability, technical skills, critical thinking, communication skills, being open to change, seeing the big picture and managing both full-time and contract/gig workers. Everything they do deeply affects the work, the workforce and the workplace (p. 42).”

The authors argue that the middle manager’s job should be redefined and reframed for organizational success. They suggest that middle managers must be able to:

  • “Rebundle jobs rather than eliminate them,
  • Actively recruit and retain workers,
  • Continuously coach and develop employees,
  • Use data to solve problems in a thoughtful way,
  • Work productively with human resources to find the best talent and improve performance,
  • Strive to connect the work to the people instead of the people to the work.” (pp. 20-21)

Revitalizing the Role of Government Agency Middle Managers

In 2016, U.S. Senator Heitkamp (D-N.D.) introduced the Federal Supervisor Training Act. There have been several attempts before to pass a federal supervisor training bill. Hopefully, the Federal government and other governments realize the imperative to re-envision the government middle manager role.

Author: Dr. Bill Brantley is the President and Chief Learning Officer for BAS2A – an instructional design consultancy for state and local governments. He also teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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