Guess what? Turning up the heat on the frozen layer of middle management is a trap. It comes from an incorrect assumption as to what the problem really is. We offer a lasting solution, however, it requires digging deeper to understand the root cause.

What Is the “Frozen Layer of Middle Management?” 

The “frozen layer” refers to a situation where you have people at the top of the organization who want to make things better, and people at the bottom of the organization who want to grow and evolve. And then you have the middle layer, the middle management, that’s frozen – they’re not ready to change. They’re resistors, and they’re the problem. At least, that’s how it’s conventionally been laid out.

The phrase itself creates tension and conflict. This term, “the frozen layer of middle management,” is a blame statement towards middle managers saying that they are the problem. From the outset, the phrase isn’t going to help anyone be successful. And it becomes a challenge that is not solution-oriented. 

Where Did the “Frozen Layer” Come From?

Even if the term has its drawbacks, it arose from a genuine concern. A lot of people have experienced a situation where they want to make change in an organization, and they’re frustrated because their boss is not on board. 

Meanwhile, people higher up in the organization are saying things like, “We should unleash creativity, we want to unlock the workers, we want to support innovation”, and so on. Yet within the organization, people think, “Well, I’m not seeing support for that. My boss is not on board with what the leader is saying. Executives say they want change, yet no one is actively changing.” That’s how people experience the problem. And they blame the middle management because they are not experiencing the action taken to improve things.

However, the problem is all-too-often misdiagnosed. It’s actually not the middle managers’ fault at all, and focusing on them as the problem distracts us from the real issue.

The Real Problem Is Misalignment

We agree that there’s a phenomenon going on that people are describing as the frozen middle layer. But the problem is not the frozen middle layer.

The problem is that middle managers are getting conflicting messages. 

Evolutionary Leadership

Top leadership says one thing, but the required metrics, goals, etc., say something else. There’s nothing wrong with the middle managers. They’re just being faced with the choice of what to focus on, with unclear or conflicting guidance.

We’ve polled thousands of leaders around the globe, and a common problem is that there is misalignment between different layers of management. Ninety percent of organizations do not have what we call “awareness and acknowledgment of the current organizational reality.” Different layers of management have different perspectives, and usually, as you go up, more filtered access to information. The understanding of what reality is and the organization’s opportunities and challenges are, is not shared.

Get Back to Reality

If people don’t even agree about what’s happening in the organization, how can they possibly agree on what to do about it? That’s where the misalignment comes in. There are often very lofty goals, but the managers on the ground have to make sure that they keep the organization running, keep products coming, keep customers happy, and so on. When push comes to shove, they’re actually the ones that have to live within all the constraints of the organizational system. Top leadership doesn’t live within those constraints, they’re focused on the future. 

Now here’s the challenge, if those top leaders were really trying to make things better, they’d focus on the current organizational reality the managers are dealing with. So that’s where we start to see, it’s nothing wrong with the managers, they’re just doing what’s asked of them.

The Root Cause: Unaware Top Leadership

What’s the root cause of the problems that are so often blamed on “the frozen layer of middle management?” By now we know it’s not the frozen middle layer. The actual root cause is unaware top leadership. The gap between what leaders say and what actually truly matters, and the conflicting goals where top leadership has not made clear priorities, are two primary examples of this.

Unclear Priorities = Guessing Game

With unclear priorities from leadership, managers do the best that they can and make their best guess about the priorities.

In most organizational systems, the decision-making protocol is what we call “random.” Top leadership asks for more than the managers can realistically get done, so managers make a random guess as to how to make that work, based on all the constraints. These managers are labeled “resistors.” But they’re not resistors, they’re just trying to do their job.

Lack of Training

The next challenge is that managers do not have the skills or training to realize what’s been asked of them. In the agile context, top leadership says, “go agile” and there’s funding, right? Agile coaches come in and they help set up teams. The teams get training and coaching. But leadership, managers and leads – people who become product owners and scrum masters – do not get the training they need to function and perform in an agile organization. They’re being asked to do “mission impossible” without proper training and without support.

“Frozen Middle” Indicates Organizational Dysfunction

Leaders are asking middle managers to somehow create this heroic change without the needed support – and then when it doesn’t go well, they blame them. Calling these managers the “frozen middle layer” is a sign of a very dysfunctional system. These managers are the people keeping the organization running – and instead of being thanked for doing their best to navigate all these conflicting priorities, they’re labeled and tarred. It’s a tragedy, and we should serve our people better. To quote a phrase from Olaf Lewitz, “Managers are people too.”

The Top 3 Steps to Solving the Leadership Problem

So what’s the prescription? Aside from the obvious step of not blaming managers, what are the solutions? Here are three steps you can take to ensure middle managers – as well as the organization as a whole – are successful.

  1. Look at what are the conflicting priorities managers are being asked to do
  2. Do an assessment to see what leaders (and managers) need an upgrade and give them the support they need
  3. Give people the leadership training to solve the real organizational challenges.

In order to create successful middle managers, we need to upgrade to a culture-centric approach. And it’s vital to understand that it’s not just about a shift to new ways of working, but also a shift in our inner being. Our mindset and how to show up and lead the new ways of working is very challenging.

Evolved Leadership Training

What’s needed is not agile training, digital training, lean training, etc. What’s needed for both top leaders and managers to help them on the journey? It is important they understand the new ways of working and give them very practical tools to create an organization that works in these new ways. It is also essential that they evolve their leadership skill to align with creating new ways of working and the ability to evolve their organization. A new style of leadership is needed:

  • How they show up as a leader through enhanced self-awareness
  • How to let go of control and share power effectively
  • How to move away from command and control leadership
  • How to lead through influence
  • The importance of culture and high performance

It’s all about learning new ways of working that are appropriate to a leader or manager rather than a team.

That’s what we do through the SHIFT314 Evolutionary Leadership Framework, or SELF. It’s the technology we’ve created to help leaders understand the evolutionary path needed for them to function and thrive in a context where agile, digital, other new ways of working are being asked for. Currently, we offer this through our CAL1 training and forthcoming book Leading Beyond Change.

Evolutionary Leadership