It’s no secret that middle managers in large companies are powerless in many ways. Very often, their role is restricted to providing recommendations to the upper management and they have no say in the final decision-making process. High-impact decisions like who gets promoted, what should be the final performance rating that directly impacts the percentage of increment offered to a person etc. are typically made by managers who are two levels above the ground-level employee.
So, when an employee wants to contest a decision that impacts them or wants to understand the logic behind the final decision, the middle manager has no answers. Instead, the system forces them to shrug their shoulders and disown any responsibility for the outcome. All this leaves employees not just confused about where to seek answers, but also resentful and less engaged. It prevents them from feeling a sense of belonging and pushes them to quit the moment they identify “greener” pastures.
The Power Of Switching It Up
And this is where a bit of lateral thinking might help: When upper management chooses a different set of parameters to control – such as engagement and retention levels – and empowers middle managers to control decisions that have a high impact on employees, it creates a culture of trust, ownership and accountability.
Below is an excellent example from the Indian IT industry that follows the journey of a company that decided to change who controlled a certain set of parameters. The impact on engagement and retention are tremendous; the new culture of trust and appreciation it fostered has taken employee performance through the roof; and middle managers in the company found a new sense of purpose and ownership.
A Conventional Beginning
Once upon a time, in an Indian IT services company, the management decided to try and switch things up as far as annual appraisal ratings and salary increments and promotions were concerned. Until then, these decisions were made in the conventional style – by a manager, who was two to three levels above the ground-level employee.
They made the final decision on who got promoted and what was the final performance rating that impacted the percentage of increment given to each employee. Of course, they made these decisions based on the recommendations given by middle managers, but their decisions weren’t always reflective of ground realities.
The Turning Point
This conventional style of decision making not only left the middle management powerless in many ways, but it also enabled them to disown all responsibility towards the final results. When employees wanted to understand the rationale behind these top-down decisions, it was quite easy for middle managers to claim they had made their recommendations but weren’t really sure what happened in the end.
Since this was the only way these decisions were ever made, employees learned to live with their frustrations and that eventually hurt the engagement and retention levels of the organization. And, that’s when the management decided to turn things around. They announced that middle managers will hereon be evaluated based on the engagement index and retention rates of their teams.
A Satisfying End
Furthermore, the recommendations of the middle managers, in matters of promotions and performance ratings impacting the increments, became final unless there was a need to question those recommendations. The management began including middle managers in transparent discussions about things like the compensation strategy, for example, so that they had a holistic understanding of the different factors that impacted these decisions.
By choosing to control a different set of parameters, the management ensured that the decisions relating to promotions and increments were made right. Besides, the transparent communication of the shift in decision-making power meant that employees now knew who to approach with their grievances. It also meant that the middle managers needed to act with fairness and greater accountability when exercising their newfound power.
Overcoming Doubts And Resistance
The change wasn’t something that went down without any resistance. It was quite a difficult transition for many middle managers because they now needed to manage their team members with maturity; learn to evaluate them without letting personal biases creep in; handle difficult conversations with tact; and keep team members motivated and engaged at work, irrespective of the results of their annual appraisal.
There were several apprehensions before implementing this change: What if the managers were too close to the employees to make the right decisions? What if the right talent left the company because of an unfair decision by their manager? What if somebody misused their power and allowed prejudices to dictate terms?
Checks And Balances
All these fears made it necessary to put in adequate checks and balances – like, creating unfiltered transparency around strategic parameters; building open-to-all feedback mechanisms; and ensuring speedy redressal of negative comments from employees. The key factor that helped was that the managers themselves were evaluated based on the engagement levels of their teams and their ability to retain employees effectively.
In the end, the middle managers did put in the extra effort needed to make sound decisions and the whole transition was successful because all the relevant stakeholders were invested in its success. It proved that the choice to control just the engagement index and retention rates in teams, automatically ensured the right decisions were made with regards to promotions and increments.
Think Through Change To Sustain It
It is true that with great power, comes great responsibility. It’s only logical that middle managers, who are visible and close to employees, make decisions regarding promotions, rankings, and increments. However, it cannot be sustained if those managers lack the maturity to handle such power responsibly.
Which is why it’s extremely important for upper management to identify the right and minimal set of parameters that indirectly control the outcome of high-impact decisions; put in place the necessary checks and balances; create an overarching sense of transparency around decision-making, and build strong redressal mechanisms that empower employees.