Improving public sector middle management: what does it really take?

This is a post published in the Mandarin by our CEO James Judge

The challenge for public sector middle managers is to focus on longer term goals – and their own development needs – while attending to the pressure of shorter-term demands

“Regardless of what high-potential initiative the CEO chooses for the company, the middle management team’s performance will determine whether it is a success or failure.”

Jonathan Byrnes

Most public sector agencies, including the Australian Public Service Commission, have now endorsed and adopted an approach to implementing L&D called the 70:20:10 model. This recommends 70% of learning be experiential (on the job), 20% through peer based social supports and 10% in a formal classroom structure.

Short term vs long term

Despite this being a robust and tested approach, a white paper published last year by AIM (now AIML), written by Dr Johnson and Prof Blackman of UNSW’s Public Service Research Group, suggested that middle-managers across the public sector indicated it had failed to bring the strong, positive results they expected.

The paper was based on interviews and focus group discussions with around 150 employees across the Federal and some State Governments. Around 76% of participants were at the EL1 or EL2 level or equivalent.

While the study investigated the development of middle managers, the reported comments of participants highlights another serious challenge faced by many public sector middle managers. Their ability to focus on longer term goals – and their own development needs – is compromised due to the need to attend to short-term demands.

The frozen middle

The term the ‘frozen-middle’ seems to have first been popularised by Jonathan Byrnes in a Harvard Business School article published in 2005. The premise of this idea was:

“…whatever initiative top management decided the company would pursue, it would be slowed to a standstill by the unwillingness and inability of the company’s middle management team to carry it out.”

From the notion that the frozen middle should be a  top-down focus for senior management, the growth of Agile — first as a project management process, now almost a separate organisational ‘value’ in some quarters — has resulted in the commentary broadening to acknowledge it can also be a bottom-up problem.

Without more detailed research it is impossible to quantify how much of an impediment middle management is in stalling or contributing to initiatives not being fully realised across the public sector.

Obviously the extent of the problem depends on which part of the sector, agency or even workplace is being considered. However the limited studies available and anecdotal evidence suggest that the problem is not trivial.

In relation to Byrne’s proposed ‘unwillingness’ by middle managers to implement organisational initiatives, where challenges exist in the commitment of that cohort of public sector employees, it’s probably due to time constraints, under-developed competencies and insufficient resourcing rather than mere indisposition.

Going back to the remarks of the 150 or so participants in the AIM study, consider the following observations.

  • Heavy task workloads resulted in little time for managerial activities and most time being spent on task oriented work.
  • Senior managers placed more value on task achievement than on people management activities.
  • There was a reported lack of clarity as to what capabilities were required to perform at the middle management level and a reported lack of preparation before moving into management roles.
  • Some managers reported ‘learning it on the run,’ moving from specialist or technical roles to running a team without knowing or understanding what skills sets were.

Anti-freeze vs Kool Aid

It’s easy to point the finger at middle management, but observers must look beyond symptoms to the underlying causes of problems.

When middle-managers feel disempowered it should hardly be a surprise their commitment, motivation and productivity can and do drop dramatically.

Factors can include: bad decisions middle managers must  live with; machinery of government changes; poor or inconsistent performance management practices that are not understood or applied consistently; difficulty remaining task focussed and still finding time for longer term thinking, and – effectively meeting the development needs of themselves and their staff.

There is no magic potion to cure these maladies. Success is framed by the environment and the mindset of the social group, especially when meeting the challenge of implementing the 70:20:10 model and prosecuting wide-scale policy or organisational initiatives.

6 tips to navigating the iceflows

Putting aside ‘resourcing’ issues and thinking instead about ‘resourcefulness’ (something you can at least control), my discussions with academics and practitioners considering these issues over the past few weeks have illuminated some higher order priorities.

  1. Embedding learning requires a concrete commitment from senior leaders.
  2. Consider how structured and well-planned opportunities to apply new learnings, like  secondments, participation in new taskforces or projects, can contribute.
  3. Peer support is similarly important to underpin change. From a social capital perspective, ask how internal forums or other formal and informal mechanisms can disseminate new ideas and engender changes to workplace practices?
  4. Navigating complexity is now a constant  of contemporary workplace management. This should be acknowledged as a core competency for future leaders. Co-design involving multiple stakeholders is also increasingly likely to become the norm.
  5. Coaching isn’t just something as a manager you get someone to provide from the outside. Leaders need to integrate coaching as part of their management style.
  6. Communication is often as much about what is not said as what is articulated. Uncorroborated or inconsistent messages will not help change behaviours.
  7. Managers also have to be able to bounce back. Amid an increasing focus on workplace wellness, remember wellness is itself is fostered by resilience. Building resilience in yourself and your team is critical to surviving and thriving in the face of headwinds and thin-ice.

Let us know your thoughts!

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