If you are a mid-level manager, you are probably familiar with this question. You might have heard it from your team, perhaps so often that you sometimes catch yourself thinking, ‘really, why do so many decisions have to go through me?’ You might have also asked the same question of your superiors in the organization to make sure that you are on track with upper management’s KPIs and expectations.
This is a common issue for many mid-level managers today – and if you are in that position, you have my deepest respect.
As everyday heroes in the thick of everything that is going on, subjected to the cross pressure of demands and expectations from below, above, the sides and the outside environment, in traditional organization structures, mid-level managers are responsible for pulling it all together, reconciling paradoxical demands, generating well-being, motivation, development, coherence and meaning, being top management’s eyes and ears, championing the employees’ needs and handling a wide range of other tasks.
Just thinking about it is enough to make you winded!
Passionate, hard-working and diligent mid-level managers are often faced with overwhelming demands and pressures, but it does not have to be that way.
Everyone has their limit – even mid-level managers
Even just a brief look at some of the many recent research studies reveals the toll of the pressure that are placed on dedicated mid-level managers – and on top managers and employees in general.
Here are a few examples:
- 26 per cent of human resources managers in the private sector feel stressed ‘often’ or ‘always’ (LEDERNE, 2022).
- 40 per cent of public-sector managers have been made responsible for a larger number of employees over the past five years, and one in five thinks they are managing too many people to do a good job (Fagbevægelsens Hovedorganisation, 2022).
- 40 per cent of public-sector managers, across sectors, feel their teams lack the resources to put citizens first in the services they provide (Komponent, 2022).
- 6 in 10 managers feel overburdened. They feel that they are being exploited and dealing with unreasonable demands (Krifa, 2022).
- 39 per cent of employees perceived their manager as being ‘always stressed’. Managers’ stress is known to be passed on and result in stress among the employees.
Set the mid-level managers and the employees free
As I see it, there is plenty of reason for looking for alternatives for the traditional hierarchical organization structures, which often tend to lock organizations into fixed patterns and to perpetuate poor well-being among mid-level managers and employees by encouraging them to look to higher levels in the hierarchy, asking ‘Is it okay if we …?’ rather than taking action and using their professional judgment in the moment, putting their core task first. The latter is in fact precisely what is needed in a rapidly changing world, where the challenges are so complex and the pace of change is so great that we need dynamic, cocreative, innovative workers and self-leadership, more than ever before.
For more than 20 years, I have been advocating a move towards a greater emphasis on self-leadership combined with more facilitative management, which aims to make it easy for employees to act based on their professional insights and competence. This also implies the structural freedom to plan the work in a way that results in coherence, meaning and well-being for themselves as well as for the users and clients.
This requires, not least, an organizational future without management by objectives, documentation, control, bureaucracy, supervision and bottlenecks created by hierarchical organizational divides –features that are currently contributing to unreasonable cross pressures among our mid-level managers, lack of well-being among employees and organizational paralysis.
Let us learn from the ones who stand out in a good way!
Fortunately, we can draw inspiration from the growing number of organizations that stand out in a good way. Organizations that have taken the first, practice-based steps from organization to organism, from traditional management to more facilitative and supportive leadership and to a more management-free, self-organizing and self-driven organization.
One good example, among many, is Regionshospitalet i Horsens (the Regional Hospital in Horsens), where the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, under the leadership of Department Head Marie Storkholm, is engaged in a five-year targeted effort to improve job satisfaction, in part by dismantling hierarchies, promoting community, eliminating bureaucracy and superfluous functions and moving away from the permission culture.
Marie considers her own management strategy a liberation process that aims to set the employees free and train them not to have to ask permission for everything they do. Her goal is to give everyone, regardless of position and seniority, influence on their everyday work and the future and to encourage everyone to provide feedback to colleagues and to call out when they face difficulties. The results are surprisingly good, especially considering how much pressure the healthcare sector is currently under. Along with her dedicated team, Marie has created a department that is not understaffed. That rarely needs to call in temp workers. That has no problem attracting new employees. That largely meets the mandatory deadlines for diagnosing and treatment and which reduced its sick leave by 40 per cent over the course of a year!
JAC and the 90-per cent management-free approach
Another excellent example is JAC (Job, Activity and Competence Centre) in Gentofte, which recently won the award as the best public-sector workplace for the fourth time in a row. The recipe is what JAC and the centre’s director, Ann-Christiana Matzen Andreasen, call the 90-per cent management-free approach. The approach is based on the idea that people ‘think better in collaboration’ and that the professionals who are closest to the users are the ones who know where it’s at.
Thus, JAC’s employees are in charge of hiring new colleagues, managing the budget, developing new services, allocating pay and so forth. The managerial team is responsible for facilitating a framework for the employees to operate within, based on their professionalism and undisputed decision-making mandate.
JAC promotes cocreation and self-leadership among the employees because this is beneficial for the users and for the employees. One of the many direct benefits is that JAC’s sick leave is 30 per cent lower than in comparable social service organizations; in particular, stress-related sick leave is very low.
An organizational liberation process
Horsens Regionshospital and JAC are two examples of best-practice organizations that we can turn to for inspiration.
That is not to say that their methods and models can or should be implemented everywhere. However, both organizations have insights to offer in relation to building sustainable organizations with dynamic and innovative employees who thrive, where the core task comes first and where far upper- and mid-level managers end up as overburdened bottlenecks in key decision-making processes.
If you would like to know more about how managers and employees can work together to enable more coherent, synchronized and management-free organizations with facilitative leadership, check out my training course in facilitative leadership or my talk ‘Murmuration leadership – when cocreation takes to the wing’ and/or register for my newsletter to receive updates on my latest blog posts with lots of practice-based advice for greater coherence, well-being and meaning.