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Better leadership with the aid of data: research into the tricky role of middle managers

10 January 2018

The leadership skills of top managers have been the subject of detailed research; in contrast surprisingly little is known about the leadership skills of middle managers who are in charge of the very sizeable lower echelons of organizations. Bart Voorn studied the dependent position of middle management and the effect of various leadership styles in a group of over 400 managers and thousands of employees of a retail organization. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 11 January. His research provides unique insight into the specific challenges faced by middle managers.

Middle managers are often seen as the eptiome of bureaucracy and inefficiency, characterized by a lack of flexibility and progress. But is this negative image justified? Voorn believes that the hierarchical position of middle managers deserves special attention. ‘They are a special group of managers. Middle management is the tactical layer of an organization, a layer that is important because it directly influences the performance of teams and the organization. But this group is also in a difficult position, because middle managers are dependent on their managers, who often decide on the course of action.’

Dual role with its own dynamics

Little research has been conducted into the dual role of managers, which is characterized by autonomy and dependence. Voorn: ‘My research maps out leadership behaviour and the effect on it of various external factors. Examples of such factors include the effect of being dependent on your boss, the pressure of imposed (and sometimes high) goals and career perspectives.’

With the aid of data Voorn shows that certain leadership styles trickle down to other layers of management through a hierarchical mechanism. Charismatic leadership, for instance. ‘Middle managers who have a charismatic boss are much more positive about their work, and they too display more charismatic and inspiring leadership behaviour,’ he concludes.

Limited autonomy

There are also less positive aspects. Middle managers are often dependent on goals that managers from the top of the organization have set them. This limited autonomy in setting their own goals is a crucial element in the role of middle managers. They face the challenging task of leading their staff to achieve the goals they have been set. Voorn shows that managers can become exhausted pursuing extremely ambitious goals and then start to display counterproductive leadership behaviour, which can affect the long-term results of the organization as a whole.

Career perspectives

Career perspectives also affect managers’ behaviour. Voorn concludes that the amount of time middle managers spend in a specific role in the organization is associated with lower satisfaction and less charismatic leadership behaviour. This mainly applies to younger middle managers.

Team performance

Voorn also studied the relationship between leadership and team performance. He shows that employee satisfaction is higher under charismatic and inspiring middle managers and that staff attrition in these teams is lower and their customers are more satisfied.

Practical advice

Voorn: ‘The clever use of data means we now have a better understanding of why managers provide a certain type of leadership, which processes influence their behaviour and how their leadership behaviour is linked to results. This will help organizations decide which type of leader to hire or train, for instance, or how to change the career paths of middle managers.’

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Last modified:16 September 2019 11.46 a.m.
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