columnBy Anthony Jongwe
At a time that there is renewed focus globally on the role of middle management in organisations, the Management Training Bureau (MTB) has seized the bull by the horns locally by coming up with focused learning and development interventions that target this key level in organisations.
This was revealed by the Darlington Damba, the Director of the MTB during an interview with this writer to gauge the potential of middle managers in fuelling high performance in Zimbabwean companies. Since the adoption of dollarisation in February 2009, Zimbabwean businesses have met with mixed experiences in terms of their performance.
Outside the usual culprit of working capital constraints often cited as reason for depressed or mediocre performance across most key sectors of the economy, not much attention has been given on the management-side of the equation. Where this has been done, emphasis has been on the top management and sometimes the lower levels often for reasons largely pecuniary rather than an intense and robust interrogation about the contribution of middle management in unlocking high performance.
This is surprising considering that a study by international consulting firm ESBC has established that middle managers play an important role in driving performance within organisations (2011).
Middle managers are the core of any organisation entrusted with decisions and actions vital to daily operations. They convert business strategies into the activities and processes that front-line personnel implement to achieve those strategies. Typically these are managers who have some involvement in operational, tactical and strategic management; the extent and emphasis depending on the organisation's structure and roles, responsibilities and accountabilities. Consistent with the foregoing, the study by ESBC came up with a number of interesting findings on the state of middle and these are summarised below:
The first finding is that middle managers are frustrated because they lack information critical to executing their role within organisations. The respondents to the survey reported that they miss information and use wrong information more often; that they have more difficulty getting data on costs; and that they are more frustrated by a lack of cooperation from other parts of their organisations. When it comes to knowing where to look for the right information, managers complain more loudly about having to go to numerous sources to compile information.
The second finding of the study is that middle managers are outrightly dissatisfied with their existing employers. Middle managers surveyed described their organisations as "mismanaged".
A third finding from the survey is that the job itself is often rife with obstacles to employee satisfaction and engagement. Middle managers were particularly unhappy with insufficient compensation and misalignment of effort and reward as the most frustrating aspects of their present jobs.
Consistent with the foregoing, most middle managers survey were thus actively seeking new work. The primary motivations for seeking new work ranged from a lack of prospects for advancement at their current jobs to prospects for better conditions at another job and a hope for better pay or benefits.
The key findings from the survey have implications for global organisations including those in Zimbabwe. Organis-ations need to take immediate remedial action to stem low levels of engagement crippling middle management and driving it away from them. Failure to do so would cripple the capacity of these organisations to translate strategic directives into the business processes and decisions that drive high performance as a result of the absence of this critical core which is also the repository of institutional knowledge. Such knowledge can take years to rebuild in new recruits, during which time middle manager productivity and contributions can be muted.
Having a critical core of 'disengaged' middle managers within an organisation is equally disastrous since apart from being unproductive, entrenched and unhappy these middle managers can drag down overall employee morale and be a real obstacle to the successful translation of a company's strategic objectives into action. This will have far-reaching implications for organisational performance. It is therefore critical that organisations take time to engender high levels of employee engagement through focused initiatives and interventions
In a bid to address some of these issues, the MTB has structured focused learning and development initiatives targeting middle management. These initiatives seek to develop specific competences required by middle managers to ensure that they do their job effectively. Competency standards are an important resource to assist decision making about an organisation's management and development of its human resources. The standards focus on the improved performance of individuals, teams and the organisation.
The specific competences which the MTB seeks to develop in middle managers include but are not limited to: providing leadership in the workplace, appropriate to the level of autonomy accorded to individuals/teams; managing personal work priorities and development; leading and participating in, and facilitating work team/group appropriate to the level of autonomy in the workplace; establishing and managing positive relationships with colleagues and customers; and planning and developing human, physical and financial resource information for decision making. Most of these competences are covered in the Middle Management Development Programme that the MTB has been running successfully and in other training programmes offered under its training division.