Middle managers & leadership – part 4 – results of the Leadership for Middle Management program

As mentioned here and here, the role of the middle manager is transforming to the point that they may be the most important people in your company today (Mollick, 2011). There are a multitude of reasons for this, but just to mention two:

1)      More horizontal structures increase the importance of middle managers in achieving competitive advantage (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1994; Currie & Procter, 2005; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Frohman & Johnson, 1993).

2)      Middle managers do not invent the corporate strategy but are the ones who realize the strategy. Several studies have shown that they can hinder the implementation of top-down strategic initiatives by foot-dragging and sabotage (Guth & MacMillan’s, 1986; Kuratko & Goldsby, 2004), which is sometimes the result of individual and group-level interest  (Meyer, 2006; Sillince & Mueller, 2007). Moreover,  their emergent behavior often diverges from, and eventually affects, the retrospective redefinition of official strategy by top managers (Burgelman, 1994).

The transformation in essence is moving away from a middle managers role into being a middle leaders.  Middle managers have to become more self-authoring, and actors of social change, rather than targets of it. In a world that has become so complex as the one we’re living into today shared leadership is needed.  They have to step up, develop a leadership identity and get involved in the strategy making process.

And this what we have set out to do in our middle managers program since two years. It takes  7 days spread over 7 months. It exists out of a mix of action (training, experiencing things, …), theory (professors teaching towards new insights), and reflection (reflecting on the theory, and action, integration things in the existing context).

The first two days we move inwards on who the middle managers are.  Everything becomes personal. What is your story as a middle manager? What are your values? What are your struggles? We also learn them the skill of telling a good story, and give them theoretical insights on leadership and apply it to the position of a middle manager.  After one month there is an intervision about a reflection paper where they have to integrate all that they have learned from the first two days.

After another month, the next two days start and we make an outward movement now. We focus on what is organizational complexity, what causes it in your organization? They learn how they deal with uncertainty and get insights on change management, etc. After one month there is again an intervision on a change experiment they had to carry out.

The last two days are about moving forward. They know now to an extent who they are, and how the world around them is changing, so the question becomes how to handle this. Therefore, they get insights on trust-building and trust-repair, on the importance of social capital. They receive political skills training, and have to reflect on where they want to stand within 2 years, and how their social capital will help them, etc.

After another month, there is the lift-off day: it is about making their personal leadership pitch, and keep growing as a leader without the support of the program.

A first analysis

We  did a first analysis on the longitudinal results of the first group of middle manager who went to the program.  We measured right before the program, right after the program and 7 months after the program was finished. Before I explain the results in detail let us be humble and start with  some limitations of the study.


1)      The sample is very small: 18 middle managers (average age: 41,3 years; 12 men/6 women). The small sample implies two things: 1) the changes have to be quite big to become significant; 2) you’re limited in the techniques you can use to analyze the results (we used a one-way ANOVA with repeated measure for now).

2)      The results are self-reported changes. We tried to get input from the N+1, but they often did not complete the whole questionnaire, and that would have decreased the sample size even further.

3)      We do not have a control group.  The sample exists, however, out of 13 different companies, so that limits the risk that the observed  changes are caused by something else than the training.

More info on the analysis can be attained on request.

The results

I have chosen to present the results following the ‘iceberg’ model of Spencer and Spencer (1993): starting with the observable and then going deeper and deeper under the waterline.

Role ambiguity  & the  4 roles of the middle manager

We see a significant decline after each measurement in role ambiguity. Role ambiguity is a lack of clarity about performance expectations relative to other role expectations and one’s own expectancy-related uncertainty.  A typical item is: “I don’t know what is expected of me” (House, Schuler & Levanoni, 1983).

Hence, it seems that our middle managers know better what is expected of them. The next question is then: what is it that they do?  We have chosen to measure the four middle managers roles described here.  Although we observe  a consistent increase in implementing strategy and facilitating adaptability the increase was not significant (p= .15), but if the sample becomes bigger the chances that it will become significant are not unlikely. The same is true for the increase in synthesizing information after the program has ended. Interesting to note, however, is that we observed a marginal decline in championing alternatives during the program. This combination seems to suggest that the middle managers sell fewer strategic ideas to top management, but  7 months after the program are implementing strategy more, as well as exploring alternative ways to do it based upon their vision. It would be interesting to see if the non-significant increase we observe of championing alternatives after the program is a time-lagging effect.

Political skills & being values-driven

In order to sell strategic alternatives to the top, and to manage the many stakeholders, middle managers need political skills (Dutton et al. 1997; Rouleau & Balogun, 2011; Ren & Guo, 2011). As sais, this is something we train them on and we see a positive increase after the program which remains after 7 months. We train them especially on the dimension social astuteness. This is the ability to ‘read the situation’, understanding social interactions and interpret behavior well. In addition, as the program focuses also on authentic leadership development especially the first two days (i.e. going below the waterline, rather than just train them on skills) we see a logically increase in apparent sincerity (i.e. coming across or being authentic, sincere, and genuine) during the program, which remains stable afterwards.

A similar pattern is observed for being values-driven. Being values-driven means that one measures his or her success based upon his/her own values (psychological subjective success), rather than climbing up the corporate ladder within an organization (vertical objective success) (Hall, 1996). In addition, we also observe a significant increase that stabilizes after the program for the attitude to manage one’s own career in terms of performance and learning demands (self-directedness) (Briscoe & Hall, 2006). The combination of those two  career attitudes are labeled a protean career attitude.

Motivation to lead & orientation to lead

Provided that our middle managers experience over a period of 14 months less role ambiguity, are better able to read the political landscape, and steer their career more on their own success criteria it is not surprising that we also observe a difference in their motivation to lead. Especially after the program is finished, most effects become stronger.  At first we see a small increase during the program in leading out of a sense of duty or responsibility (social normative) (e.g. “I feel that I have a duty to lead others if I am asked”), but after the program we see a clear increase in leading because they like to lead others. They enjoy leading and see themselves as leaders (i.e. affective motivation to lead) (Kark & Van Dijck, 2007). As we try to develop a leadership identity in this course, this is good news.

Obviously, as we have discussed many times before on this blog, one can wonder what is meant by leading. The results demonstrate that due to the program they believe leadership is more a shared process of meaning-making.  This orientation is based on the idea that the difficult demands of modern life are too much for a single leader to handle (see Pearce & Conger, 2003), and the focus is on the process of leadership, which inherently includes ‘follower’ involvement.  Leadership is seen as a property of the group, rather than one individual, and is understood to emerge as a result of collaborative interaction. Leadership is a shared responsibility of all group members (Hiller, 2005).

Focus at work: prevention or promotion?

Finally,  we measured the self-regulatory focus of the participants. Higgins (1997) proposed that people have two basic self-regulatory systems: promotion and prevention.

Individuals with a prevention focus tend to notice and recall information related to the costs of loss, failure, or punishment. They are likely to value safety and follow rules. They approach tasks with vigilance and concern themselves with accuracy. They are concerned with what they ought to do, acting out of obligation and in accordance with expectations. They act in a manner that avoids negative outcomes and complies with explicit expectations or policies (Kark & Van Dijck, 2007).

Individuals with a promotion focus attend to goals related to ideals and growth and advancement (Higgins, 1997, 1998). They direct energy toward pursuing opportunities to grow, gain, or achieve aspirations, and they direct energy away from maintaining the status quo. This mindset is likely to manifest itself in cooperative and creative behavior that goes beyond the minimum role expectations. (Kark & Van Dijck, 2007).

Stated differently, a prevention focus leads to management, while a promotion focus leads to leadership.  The results show clearly that at the start of the program they come in as managers. This focus on management does not decline over time, but their focus on leading does and remains stable. This make sense: changing is things is about finding that balance between maintaining some of the existing, while introducing the new thing.


In sum, the middle managers that followed our program tell us that over a period of 14 months they:

  1. Experience less role ambiguity
  2. Develop a greater ability to read the political landscape
  3. Steer their careers more on their own success criteria
  4. Enjoy leading more and see themselves as leaders
  5. See leadership as a shared responsibility
  6. Direct their energy toward pursuing opportunities to grow, gain, or achieve aspirations, and away from maintaining the status quo.

Obviously, because of the design of the study our results do not proof 100% that our program works, but they are encouraging for at least two reasons. First, as mentioned: provided the small sample size the changes have to be large in order to become (marginal) significant. The fact that they are is good news. Second, all changes, even the ones that were not significant were in the direction we expected given the goals of the program.

As we will keep running this program new data is on its way. This will allow us to do more fine-grained statistics in the future and will help us to fine-tune  and optimize the program further.

I want to thank Daan Sorgeloos for his help in collecting the data.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3

Any comments?


Burgelman, R. A. (1994). Fading memories: A strategic process theory of strategic business exit in dynamic environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39, 24-56

Briscoe, J. P., & Hall, D. T. (2006b). The interplay of boundaryless and protean careers: Combinations and implications. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 4–18.

Currie, G., & Procter, S. (2005). The antecedents of middle managers’ strategic contribution: the case of a professional bureaucracy. Journal of management studies, 42, 1325-1356.

Dutton, J., Ashford, S., & O’Neil, R. (1997). Reading the wind: how middle managers assess the context for selling issues to top managers. Strategy management journal, 18 (5), 407-425.

Floyd, S. W., & Lane, P. M. 2000. Strategizing throughout the organization: Managing role conflict in strategic renewal. Academy of Management Review, 25: 154-177.

Floyd, S., & Woodridge, B. (1994). Dinosaurs or dynamos? Recognizing middle management’s strategic role. Academy of management executive, 8 (4), 47-57.

Frohman, A.L. & Johnson, L.W. (1993). The middle management challenge: moving from crisis to empowerment. McGraw-Hill: New York.

Guth, W. D., & MacMillan, I. C. (1986). Strategy implementation versus middle manager self-interest. Strategic Management Journal, 7, 313-327.

Hall, D. T. (1996). Protean careers of the 21st century. Academy of Management Executive, 10, 8–16.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280–1300.

Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30, 1–46.

Hiller, N. (2005). An examination of leadership belief and leadership self-identity: constructs, correlates, and outcomes.  Unpublished Doctoral thesis.

House, R. J.,  Schuler,R.S. & Levanoni, E. (1983). Role conflict and ambiguity scales: Reality or artifacts? Journal of Applied Psychology, 68, .334-337.

Kark, R. & Van Dijk, D. (2007). Motivation to lead motivation to follow: The role of the self-regulatory focus in leadership processes. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 500-528.

Kuratko, D. E., & Goldsby, M. G. (2004). Corporate entrepreneurs or rouge middle managers? A framework for ethical corporate entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Ethics, 55, 13-33.

Meyer, C. B. (2006). Destructive dynamics of middle management intervention in postmerger processes. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 42(4), 397-419.

Mollick, E. (2011). Why middle managers may be the most important people in your company? http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2783

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. Oxford: the Oxford University Press.Pearce & Conger, 2003

Ren, R., & Guo, C. (2011). Middle Managers’ Strategic Role in the Corporate Entrepreneurial Process: attention-based effects. Journal of Management, 37(6), 1586-1610.

Rouleau, L., & Balogun, J. (2011). Middle Managers, Strategic Sensemaking, and Discursive Competence. Journal of Management Studies, 48(5), 953-983.

Spencer, L.M. & S. Spencer (1993). Competence at Work. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Sillince, J., & Mueller, F. (2007). Switching strategic perspective: The reframing of accounts of responsibility. Organization Studies, 28, 155-176.


About Jesse Segers

Academic Director of The Future Leadership Initiative
This entry was posted in 19. Leadership development, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Middle managers & leadership – part 4 – results of the Leadership for Middle Management program

  1. Pingback: Middle managers & leadership – part 3: how to become a middle leader? | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  2. Pingback: Middle managers & leadership – part 2: leading from the middle: future proof middle managers. | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  3. Pingback: Middle managers & leadership – part 1: dynamo’s or dinosaurs in your organisation? | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

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