Three-minute explainer on… the frozen middle

Middle managers who have reached a plateau in their careers could become demotivated and subsequently less interested in contributing to company progress

Tme Frozen Middle 2

Middle managers matter. They are an important and necessary buffer between the C-suite and the rest of a workforce. 

When boards make decisions, middle managers are charged with communicating and implementing them, so ideas can become reality. It works from the bottom up, too. Middle managers are also responsible for sharing ideas and concerns from the staff they oversee, to help give the C-suite a fuller picture of what’s going within an organisation.

It pays dividends, then, for this group of personnel to be engaged, motivated and aligned with company strategy and values. If middle managers are not so inclined, the downsides for businesses can be severe.

What is the frozen middle?

The frozen middle describes the role that middle managers play in halting company progress when initiatives are handed down to them but not carried out. It is when a strategic decision is made at the executive level and then directed towards the middle manager, but along the way encounters a gap in communication, which ultimately leads to a lack of understanding and no results.

A frozen middle can occur when middle managers feel stuck, frustrated, disillusioned or even disregarded by those above them. It can also be caused by middle managers who genuinely don’t have the skill or the ability to move beyond their current position, but who won’t leave the organisation because they feel comfortable, thereby stymieing development for people beneath them.

Could the frozen middle hurt your business?

Bluntly, yes. Where there is a ‘freeze’, business leaders must work quickly to work out what has caused it. What led to the gap in communication? Why was there a lack of understanding?

It is important that business leaders engage and develop their middle managers as much as possible and actively acknowledge their contributions. Communication between the C-suite and middle managers should be frequent and thorough, not simply a case of bosses passing down headline instructions and expecting managers to fill in the blanks.

Thawing the frozen middle hinges on three key things. First, business leaders should strive to understand, rather than exacerbate, the conflicting pressures that lead to the freeze in the first place. Second, it is important for the C-suite to create an environment in which middle managers may offer feedback on the instructions they are given. And third, middle managers should be given the opportunity to progress themselves – and encouraged to do so. This will create a better flow of talent through an organisation.