Empowerment and Performance of Middle Management

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The empowerment of middle managers is a paradox that is not easily solved. As this strata or level of management is often given responsibility for making sure goals are achieved yet often they have little actual authority to demand results or use legitimate power (French, Raven, 1960). Empowerment from senior management is one potential approach to augmenting the effectiveness of this level of management yet the context of empowerment is just as critical as the support given (Bartunek, Spreitzer, 2006). This paper will analyze the approaches for middle managers to be more effective in their roles, with empowerment being an enabler, not the foundation, of long-term change. For middle managers to achieve that, they must also continually improve and transform themselves from supporters of the status quo (as managers often do) to being transformational leaders in their own right (Jackson, 1991).

Empowering the Middle Manager — Harder Than It Looks

The much-used word of empowerment tends to overgeneralize and simplify how difficult it is to give middle management the skills and leadership qualities necessary to get departments and employees to cooperate and get tasks completed on time. Empowerment cannot entirely be conveyed from the outside of any individual. And while the five bases of power, including coercive, reward, legitimate, referent and expert power are all critically important to a middle manager’s ability to get work done and gain cooperation, they alone cannot be conveyed on anyone (French, Raven, 1960). Instead, senior management must create an environment that provides middle management with the opportunity to show how their skill sets can be best used for the unique requirements and needs of their organizations, allowing their innate talents and abilities to surface. This nurturing aspect of senior management is also critical for the middle manager to attain a degree of credibility with their staff, other subordinates in related departments relied on for work, and also for their reputation in the company. All of these aspects or attributes of a manager are not possible to provide from the outside or from a simple declaration from a senior leader in an organization (Bartunek, Spreitzer, 2006). Rather, these attributes must be earned and more fundamentally than that, emanate out of who the middle manager really is. If a senior management team can create environments conducive to their promising middle managers so that these innate leadership attributes begin to get used on projects and programs, then the company will be on its way to creating a more effective middle management layer (Ismail, Mohamed, Sulaiman, Mohamad, Yusuf, 2011). It is just as much of a senior management issue as a middle management one. Studies indicate that the most transformational leaders are those that concentrate on creating a culture of trust in their companies, and everyone, from the individual contributor to the senior manager, all are empowered to contribute (Eisenbeiss, Boerner, 2010). Therefore empowerment becomes a cultural aspect of the company, not necessarily one enforced through hierarchical means. Keeping along with this viewpoint it is impossible to and knowledgeable professionals to trust someone they inherently do not. Reporting to a middle manager is not the same as trusting or respecting them, as many employees today would quickly admit (Kuepers, 2011). But for the middle manager to be empowered, they must aspire and gain the trust and respect of their subordinates if they are to increase their own ability to deliver value over time to the organization. The path to empowerment is not a clean, well-defined one with clear mile makers along the way for a given manager. Rather, senior management, the leaders of an organization, need to concentrate on how best to create the right opportunities for middle management to gain trust and respect, begin to forge their own transformational leader skill sets if they are to continue maturing as managers (Jogulu, 2010). It is as much of a shared responsibility as a completely owned one by the middle manager. The hard reality of empowerment is that is it not easy to do well, and second, it requires the concentrated commitment of senior management to make it as effective as possible. Third, empowerment must be individualistic and focused on how best to make the innate strengths of a given middle manager stronger and more relevant to their work (Walumbwa, Luthans, Avey, Oke, 2011). Fourth, empowerment is iterative and situation ally-based when it is the most effective (Kuepers, 2011). This is particularly true in the situations of rapidly changing industries that rely on engineering and product expertise. The reliance on expert power in these industries is very well-known and respected as part of company cultures. The expert power in Google for example makes the empowerment of middle managers highly effective. Contrasting that approach to middle management is that found in more traditional industries that rely on hierarchical organizational models including manufacturing. In those industries, seniority often dominates empowerment, or legitimate power (Marchington, 1995). Fifth, organizations must become strong believers in 360-degree feedback of their middle managers so they receive honest evaluations of how they are doing. With the thought in mind that empowerment is an iterative process, never completely achieved, bot more of a continual improvement over time, companies who succeed at this strategy embrace feedback. It is as if they are obsessed with seeing how effective their strategies are at managing the transition of managers into transformational leaders. These five steps are critical for any manager to move from being merely a keeper of the status quo to being an empowerment manager (Jackson, 1991). Critics of the terms “empowerment” suggest that any manager who is empowered is now actually a transformational leader.

Empowerment and Leadership

What is the point of having a manage empowered if they are not going to be able to transform the areas of a business they are responsible for? This is precisely the criticism of those that say empowerment needs to progress to the creation of empowered leaders as well. The core transformational leadership attributes of authenticity, accuracy of commitments to actions, transparency and trust are all critically important for any business to excel over time (Eisenbeiss, Boerner, 2010). These attributes of a transformational leader can be cultivated from management if the leadership in a given company is willing to keep focused on it as a goal. Without this continual and long-term commitment to changing managers to leaders, the status quo will prevail and little will change. Middle managers, from the best to the worst, will get frustrated, leave to other companies with more growth opportunities and seek leadership when they are confident they can manage its requirements.


Empowerment must be an organizational process, not just a single responsibility of a manager. This paper has provided insights into how best ot create a culture organizationally that provides for empowerment for middle management. It is as much of a leadership initiative as any other. As a result, the focus must be on how to provide managers with the opportunity to be transformational in scope, give them the chance to grow as leaders while being authenticity and trustworthy organization-wide. Only then will they be empowered, when how they are matches what is required of them.


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