Monty Python's Silly Walk. Graffitti, Porto, Portugal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #705

Middle Managers’ Walking the Talk Needs Top Management Support

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Key Concept

For middle managers, behavioural integrity — the perception by subordinates that management behaviour matches their words — is a key factor for success. Unfortunately, organizations often undermine their middle managers’ behavioural integrity with contradictory policies and decisions — or policies, directives or decisions for which they never acquired middle management buy-in.

Idea Summary

The best middle managers influence and inspire their subordinates to higher levels of performance. Research has shown that the secret to being an inspirational middle manager is behavioural integrity, which can be summarized as ‘walking the talk’. Subordinates become motivated and engaged when they see that the behaviour of managers aligns with what they say. 

However, middle managers often find this vital behavioural integrity undermined by inconsistent or contradictory policies, initiatives and decisions from higher levels of the organization that they, as middle managers, must communicate and sell to their subordinates. For example, middle managers might be told to communicate to their employees that safety comes first, while at the same implementing compensation policies that encourage safety short cuts.

In a recent study, a team of researchers explored two key questions at the heart of successful middle management: 1) why middle management behavioural integrity leads to higher employee performance, and 2) how the upper levels of the organization can strengthen rather than weaken this behavioural integrity.

In answer to the first question, the researchers found that behavioural integrity sparked citizenship behaviour on the part of employees. Citizenship behaviour is defined as the desire to go above-and-beyond one’s responsibilities. The motivation for these ‘corporate citizens’ is internal; for example, when they stay late to beat a deadline or pick up the slack of a sick colleague, they are not motivated by extra money or kudos from their bosses, but by a desire to see their colleagues and their organization as a whole succeed. 

The more this citizenship behaviour attitude exists within a group in a company — among the members of a business unit, for example — the higher the performance level of the group. For the superiors of the middle managers who lead these groups, the team’s performance reflects positively on the leader. Thus, a middle manager’s behavioural integrity increases that manager’s performance level indirectly — because it is based the performance level of his or her subordinates.

However, one interesting result of the study is that behavioural integrity also has a direct impact on performance as evaluated by superiors: a middle manager who walks the talk impresses his or her superiors directly — separately from the positive effect on subordinates’ performance levels.

As noted above, all this benefit is lost if middle management behavioural integrity is undermined by the organization — which happens when middle managers are forced by corporate realities or decisions made above their heads to communicate or implement contradictory policies and directives. 

The study thus establishes a framework for middle management success summarized as follows: organizational support at the top levels of the company reinforces the behavioural integrity of middle managers, which inspires a corporate citizenship attitude by subordinates that leads to high performance evaluations for both subordinates and (directly and indirectly) middle managers. 

Business Application

The study’s framework clearly identifies the importance of organizational support to ensure and enhance middle management behavioural integrity. The research yielded several options through which the senior levels of a company can increase organizational support.

  1. Persuasive Tools and a Voice. Senior leaders should equip middle managers with the arguments and the persuasive tools that will help them sell and implement top management policy decisions to their subordinates. This process not only helps middle managers to sell new policies or initiatives, but just as importantly, it allows middle managers themselves to buy into these new policies. The research showed that if middle managers are given an opportunity to voice their concerns or objections, they will feel, at the very least, that these policies were not forced on them without any regard to their opinions or needs. Being given a voice increases a middle manager’s perception of the organization’s support, which can make a big difference when he or she must sell higher-level decisions.
  2. Middle Management Discretion. Senior leaders should clearly define the areas where middle managers have discretion on implementing organizational policies. The more opportunities middle managers have to make decisions — for example, how a certain policy should be implemented — the greater the chance for those managers to maintain their behavioural integrity.
  3. Top Leader Responsibility. Senior leaders have the responsibility to help middle managers meet their commitment, and they must be consistent in fulfilling that responsibility.
  4. Behavioural Integrity Training. Behavioural integrity challenges are not always the result of systemic or structural barriers, such as inconsistent or contradictory policies or lack of persuasive tools. In some cases, middle managers need guidance or training to help middle managers raise their behavioural integrity. For example, according to the researchers, middle managers could receive training in asking for and making commitments, clarifying values, and making prompt and clear apologies when something goes wrong.
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