Here’s confirmation of what HR pros have always known: Mid-level managers are very possibly the most important people in any organization.
That’s the message in recent research by Ethan Mollick, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania.
He says despite top execs’ common view that middle managers are interchangeable parts, company lieutenants are the main drivers of performance – and profits.
Mollick studied the role of middle managers in the computer game industry, where, he says in a recent article on Knowledge@Wharton, “success … relies not just on managers in charge of innovation, but also on project managers capable of organizing dozens of programmers and coordinating budgets that often reach into the tens of millions of dollars.”
His conclusion? Middle managers — not the “creative types” or the top execs who formulate overall company strategy — are the key to an organization’s performance.
The message’s clear: Companies need idea people to come up with new products and market approaches. And somebody has to figure out an overall plan for the future.
But the people who really count are the ones who actually ride herd on the role players — the middle managers whose job it is to fit together all the disparate parts and make sure the product gets out the door.
Mollick’s research paper is titled: People and Process, Suits and Innovators: Individuals and Firm Performance.
Give them the tools
So what do these findings mean for HR people?
First, they’re fodder for discussion with the C-level folks about the need for comprehensive manager training. If middle managers are indeed the key players in your organization, it only makes sense to give them as many tools as you can.
Second, the research serves as a reminder of how manager misbehavior — whether it’s legal issues like harassment and discrimination or simply failing to properly motivate personnel — can truly affect a company’s bottom line.
That’s something the C-level folks can truly understand.