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The crucial skills for middle managers to survive the 'great unbossing'

Lindsay Dodgson   

The crucial skills for middle managers to survive the 'great unbossing'
  • Companies are axing middle management positions, but this may be short-sighted, an expert said.
  • Middle managers provide support to junior employees, according to the head of a training platform.

Middle managers have been the punching bag of the workplace for some time, with employees increasingly seeing their direct superiors as meddlesome, obsolete, and taking credit for their work.

But it shouldn't be a matter of axing middle management entirely, Koma Gandy, the VP of business and leadership at the corporate training platform Skillsoft, told Business Insider.

Rather, we need to remember what makes a middle manager valuable.

The answer, Gandy said, lies in developing better soft "power" skills.

With improved communication and listening, more empathy, and emotional intelligence, middle managers could save themselves from the "great unbossing," Gandy said.

But that requires leaders to take note and start investing in managers to help them nurture these skills as well.

"I would say, why don't we lean into that cohort rather than thinking about how can we eliminate that cohort?" Gandy said.

The attack on middle managers

Companies have been axing middle management positions as a way to cut costs.

Their reduction has also been in response to Gen Z's distaste for management and how office culture has shifted with remote working.

Proponents of "unbossing" believe it could make Gen Zers who are entering the workforce better at their jobs by giving them more autonomy.

But this is short-sighted, Gandy said.

For starters, middle managers provide mentorship to junior employees and graduate staffers.

Zoomers entering the workforce prioritize their own mental health and work-life balance, and a good manager is someone who also makes these things a primary concern, Gandy argued.

"Some of the things that Gen Z is demanding from the workplace can be uniquely facilitated by the very people that the trend is trying to eliminate, which are these middle managers," Gandy said.

A lack of training

Good middle managers need training and guidance, which is severely lacking in current workplaces, Gandy said.

Many people, a few years into their careers, will fall into management positions almost by default. They are often expected to know how to effectively do the job without much support.

"It's just congratulations and good luck," Gandy said. "But wait, aren't you going to teach me how to lead a meeting? Aren't you going to teach me how to communicate to a team?"

Key skills for managers to develop include active listening and effective communication, which makes their employees feel valued, that their work matters, and that they are being recognized as whole human beings.

If somebody on the team is underperforming, for example, it could be for a myriad of reasons — something is going on at home, they're feeling unsure about what their job is, or where they fit into the company.

"If you don't build up that emotional intelligence to be able to tease out what's happening in that person's environment, you're never going to unlock and unleash the potential that they can bring to their teams," Gandy said.

A team that has a manager who has developed strong soft skills, "then you're going to see ripple effects throughout the organization," Gandy said.

A faulty toolbox

But when these skills are underdeveloped, "it creates a lot of mistrust" among team members, Gandy said.

"Nobody wants to be micromanaged. Nobody wants to have somebody sitting over their shoulder," she said.

Micromanaging often doesn't happen in a vacuum. It may be that a manager doesn't know any different, Gandy said, because that's how they were managed when they were more junior.

This manager shouldn't be let go, Gandy said, just because they have a "faulty toolbox." No manager comes to work striving to underperform or wanting their team to feel devalued and burned out, she said.

"That's a training deficiency. That is a behavior that can be changed," she said.

"If you're not supporting and nurturing them and giving them the tools to develop themselves, then, of course, it might seem attractive to eliminate that cohort."

Middle managers are easy to pick on, Gandy said, but it'll be a lot more cost-effective in the long run for companies to invest in training them in these skills.

"I really think it's a matter of, how do we intentionally develop and expose middle managers to the types of skills and the type of training that they need to be successful," she said. "Rather than throwing that entire cohort away to the detriment of an organization."

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