It may come under different terms, but most people in the corporate world will recognise the group I dub as ‘middle management concrete’. These are people in middle management who are resistant to change in an organisation, perhaps for the reason that it disrupts their routines or because they’re approaching retirement and just want to ride out the last term. Reluctant to embrace new ideas or procedures, they can be a real hindrance to culture change, business progression and growth within the company, and therefore should not be underestimated.
Middle management concrete can be made up of active or passive obstructors. At worst, some are actively looking to interfere with progression, however there are some whose roles are of no real value to the business. Despite this, such individuals are still able to carve out a position for themselves in which they can operate on a level that suits them, and not necessarily the business.
I have a story to illustrate this, entitled ‘Get rid of Brian’. Brian is not the actual name of the subject; his name has been changed for the purposes of the tale. In my role as operations director for a large car retail business, I once visited a sales office of a car dealership. Whilst sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a young sales assistant on a call with a customer. The customer asked for the cost of a car repair to be covered by the dealership, which due to it being a grey area was left on hold as the sales assistant checked with her boss. When she hung up, I enquired about the amount she was authorised to sign off, and she stated that costs exceeding £250 had to be authorised by her manager, Brian. I asked her whether Brian had ever not signed off a cost, and she said no. It seemed Brian’s job was to sit in a back office, non-customer facing, and make decisions that the sales assistant was capable of making. As far as I could see, there was a simple solution here: get rid of Brian. His role was of no value. The sales assistant was subsequently empowered to make the decisions and Brian departed the business.
Though it may seem a harsh outcome, Brian’s role was a clear example of middle management concrete, albeit in a passive capacity. Businesses cannot thrive and grow with the presence of people like Brian.
The quest to crack this layer isn’t easy, but there are some must-do tasks for the checklist:
Walk the walk – taking the time to walk the ‘shop floor’ and get staff on your side will help your cause. Staff appreciate senior management taking the time to connect with them and hear their thoughts, and they can be your greatest ally in the battle.
Empower people – empowering employees to make decisions they mightn’t normally gives them confidence to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for their decisions. This also negates layers of management which can prove a drain on resources.
Keep on top of them – challenge the methods, decisions and processes of those you deem to be middle management concrete to ensure they answer for their actions. If you keep the pressure going from above (and from the bottom with your allies on the shop floor), they’ll either decide it’s not for them or move on to pastures new. Either of those options will be beneficial for the business!
Don’t lose heart; this phase can take many months and as part of the culture change that is so often necessary in business turnaround.