Are middle managers left behind by UK business?

In many organisations, middle managers act as the crucial filter between the company’s strategy and the day-to-day operational demands required to deliver that strategy.

Relationships between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break employee productivity, satisfaction and retention. Yet, they appear to be an under-represented group in research to date, which has focused on leaders, future leaders or new graduates. This is interesting, given the leader alone may account for just 5% of a firm’s performance.

It is for these reasons that Ashridge decided to research the learning experiences and needs of middle managers across the UK. The research revealed that these managers are being squeezed and many are missing out on the key development that they need due to a lack of time, job pressures and financial constraints.

Hamish Scott, programme director, Ashridge Business School, said: “If middle managers are working in organisations that say they support their learning and development, yet only half of them are given time to learn, there is a real business issue here.”

Middle managers are the heartland for many of our programmes at Ashridge Business School, therefore it is important that we improve our understanding of how middle managers learn, both on-the-job (informal development) and within the physical or virtual classroom (formal development), and how we might better support these development experiences and needs.

Research results show that formal learning is being overlooked with ‘time poor’ middle managers learning as they go, with respondents citing experiences such as stretch assignments, giving and receiving feedback and managing difficult conversations as key self-development experiences. As people progress through their careers, formal learning becomes more important, with respondents saying external short courses and peer discussion and support are seen as being more helpful.

At early stages of career development, the top three most effective learning experiences are perceived as being on-the-job development, shadowing an experienced person and external short courses.

Important self-development experiences for the managers surveyed were anchored in people management, rather than core professional skills.

The top five self-development experiences were:
· Stretch assignments or working under pressure
· Giving / receiving feedback
· Leading / managing people
· Short courses / in-company programmes / professional training / formal qualifications
· Taking on a new project / role / stepping up.

Scott added: “All too often the focus is on senior leaders and future leaders when it comes to development. The research showed that middle managers value formal learning, as it provides personal insight as well as building confidence and developing skills such as people management, academic, technical and business skills — but in reality these needs are not being met.

“We need to get the middle moving, inspired and fulfilled; this means investing in people development to equip them with the skills to do their job and keep UK business running smoothly. What organisations are missing is their need to invest in its whole workforce and not use middle management as a stepping stone position.”