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When business leaders and senior executives fail to offer clear direction, encouragement and motivation to their middle management teams, it often results in those middle managers intentionally or unintentionally blocking positive change or delivery.

This leads to something called the frozen middle. A concept that is in no way new, of course. People have been writing about it for over a decade now.

In our experience a frozen middle layer is usually a sign that there is a problem to be solved. So, we simply go ahead and solve it, tackling it as a team in exactly the same way we would with any other impediment.

Middle managers are change leaders in the making

It’s useful here to reiterate an important point that Behnam Tabrizi made in the Harvard Business Review back in 2014 entitled ‘The Key to Change Is Middle Management’:

“We think of mid-level managers as managing incremental change – but many are change leaders in the making. When they align their personal goals and strengths with the organisation’s goals, they become extraordinary leaders.”

At Fractal, when working with our clients in financial services, we very rarely come across the ‘frozen middle’ challenge. And the reason behind that is because of the way that we do it. Specifically, using a team of teams framework, decentralising command and coaching leaders to use a servant leadership approach.

As Ray Dalio famously pointed out: “An organisation is the opposite of a building — the foundation is at the top.” Which essentially means that the leadership team of a company – which includes the middle management team – is the layer that forms the bedrock of a firm’s ability to deliver

The reason this is important is that your foundation, your management team, has to be strong to carry on the good that your business does. Your middle management layer is the team that ensures the culture gets passed down, that are demonstrating servant leadership and guiding their teams in line with the company’s vision.

This is why it is vital to remember that the middle management layer are still leaders. And they still fall foul to the common pitfalls of leaders, such as command-and-control being the worst way to operate, for example. Therefore, it’s really important that senior leaders and executives work hard to provide servant leadership and decentralised command with their middle management teams.

Why middle management can cause issues

Why would middle management freeze or slow change? Some of the common reasons we find that prevent them from amplifying positive change throughout the organisation include:

1) Not understanding the “why” behind the change or delivery

2) Not knowing how to translate strategy into concrete delivery

3) Not believing in the plan for delivery

4) Not being heard when having relevant contributions to make

5) Not understanding their place in the delivery or new world (am I working myself out of a job?)

6) Not having the skills to manage in the new world

7) Not feeling safe with the impending change

Upskill, engage and unfreeze the frozen middle

If you upskill your middle management team and engage with them as servant leaders, you give them a strong sense of purpose. You help them come up with a plan (rather than giving them the plan) and so on.

In fact, all of these fundamental Agile leadership principles apply even more so to the middle management team than they do to the actual delivery teams.

At Fractal, the way that we structure our delivery, all the way through (a fractal is a pattern that repeats throughout, after all) always involves having a senior leadership team that does decentralised command. And uses the middle management layer as their team members and engages them in their planning approaches.

That’s because middle managers are then always engaged. There is upskilling, they know what their place is in the transformation. All of this stuff happens because you are doing decentralised command, and the team of teams approach all the way from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom. Something that is guaranteed to eliminate or dissipate any problems related to a frozen middle layer.

Your management team is not your enemy

Finally, remember that your management team is never your enemy. Their responsibility is to continue to amplify the good of the organisational systems: culture, training, servant leadership and all the other good stuff.

Ultimately, they embody all of those things, so they really should be heroes. They are the glue between the top of the house (the strategy) and the tactical delivery. That’s how we see them and view them. And because their importance is underlined all the way through our change efforts, they are never left behind.

This is simply because without that middle team feeling effective, engaged and coming up with good plans – you are never going to get that delivery at the bottom.

Fractals replicate at every level. And a Fractal System is also able to solve problems at every level. Our company name encapsulates the way that we operate. Whenever there is an issue or a challenge, because we are transparent, because we are creating a team of teams and bringing the best of our teams together, helping each other all the way through, we solve problems. We keep moving and help the organisations we work with adapt quicker than ever.

Jay is co-founder of Fractal Systems Consulting, an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches. All have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change.

Our Agile Training for Managers is a great program aimed at empowering management teams with Agile Team Management skills. This exclusive training, unique globally, equips managers to build and lead effective, self-organising agile teams, and ultimately reduce the risk of the ‘Frozen middle.’