Legend has it that middle managers get in the way of innovation as they jealously guard their fiefdom and obstruct progress and change.  Except the legend doesn’t really match up with reality.

For instance, a Wharton study from a few years ago found that middle managers are the most influential group in the organization when it comes to innovation.  The author suggests that middle managers are especially important in industry that require innovative employees such as biotech, computing and media.

This was followed by a second paper the next year, which suggested that many of their ideas and insights are ignored by those above them.  What’s more, this process only worsens the more layers of bureaucracy there are.

“I like to call this hermit crab syndrome,” the researchers say. “When mid-level managers feel their ideas are not reflected in top management decisions they withdraw, like a hermit crab retreating into its shell.”

Drivers of change

That matters, because a recent study from Cambridge University found that ideas originating from middle managers were much more likely to be supported than those that originate from the top.

The paper suggests that the best approach to delivering change successfully is to blend the skills of top managers and middle managers.  This helps to avoid any semblance of blame culture where top managers criticize middle managers for their lack of enthusiasm, and middle managers believe the senior managers are unwilling to listen.

“There’s a high failure rate of change processes in companies and other organisations, often due to poor employee support,” the authors say.  “Our study looks at how middle managers and top managers can best work together to win employee support and drive constructive change. The most employee support comes when middle managers devise the change ideas, and support is then strengthened if top managers implement those steps.”

Proximity counts

Central to the success of middle managers is their proximity to both employees and the main technologies they use.  An important takeaway is the fact that the efforts of middle managers are amplified when they’re supported by senior managers.  When they combine the contextual insights of the middle managers with the senior managers ability to allocate resources, it’s a potent mix.

“The good news is that it is possible to mobilise support among employees and to motivate them to pursue organisation-wide interests,” the authors say. “However, TMs and MMs need to be mindful of their co-dependence, the change roles they embrace, and how they embrace these roles.”

The findings suggest we may need to rethink traditional views of ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ change, and instead look at the complex interactions between middle and senior management.  In such an environment, both levels can act as either the initiator of change or its executor.  The dichotomy between strategy formulation and tactical implementation that has formed so much of our thinking around change is ripe for a rethink in our complex, VUCA world.

It’s very unlikely that middle managers are bereft of ideas on how your organization can be improved, so maybe now is the time to start listening to them and working together to make things better.