Middle managers are the key

January 17, 2020
5 min
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“Leadership participation is the lifeline of behavior change.” 

— Adam Fridman

The big idea

In today’s competitive talent market, organizational leaders are racing to get an edge. The demand for highly skilled work is simply outpacing the rate at which people can be trained. In an attempt to meet this challenge, there has been a booming market for a range of human capital development services and products. In 2016, employee training was a 356 billion dollar industry worldwide. The trend does not show signs of slowing anytime soon. 

For all the resources that organizations are pouring into people development programs, what are they getting in return? In the area of culture, it doesn’t look like much. Researchers have long understood that isolated workshops and seminars have only a limited impact on desired outcomes. The impacts of these programs are typically short-lived: they offer a brief period in which people are motivated, followed by a steady regression to old habits.

Middle managers are the key

During our exploratory research at over 100 organizations, we’ve come to discover effective methods of establishing and maintaining desired behaviors. The best method we’ve found? Targeting the leadership habits of ground-level managers. 

Our findings seem to be consistent with the current research available. According to Gallup, 70% of the variance in employee experience comes down to the manager. The employee’s impression of the organization as a whole ultimately rests on their relationship with their manager. These relationships are invaluable, yet neglected. 

Middle management is neglected, but a closer look gives a good reason why. Large organizations have a lot of managers and limited budgets. Plus, middle-management already faces many responsibilities — they can hardly be expected to worry about yet another thing. So the strategy usually ends up being hiring expensive coaches for C-suite executives and a decreasing allocation of resources as you descend the hierarchy. Scaling the sort of development seen among executives has traditionally not been feasible. This is changing. 

By the numbers

In numerous case studies, we’ve shown how asking for a single daily commitment to a leadership action can result in many more reported instances of desired behaviors. Below are some of the key highlights from our case studies involving ground-level leadership.

Restaurant Industry

If there is one industry that is most well known for its high turnover and the business challenges that poses, it’s the restaurant industry. Many restaurants have difficulty keeping their staff and it has come to almost be a given. 

Middle managers are the key

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the restaurant industry experienced a 74.9 percent rate of turnover in 2018. This is compared to an average turnover rate of 48.9 across all private sector industries. 

It was fitting then that we test our idea for sustaining leadership development at the restaurant chain Macaroni Grill (MacGrill). So, what did we see after ground-level management began committing to daily leadership actions?

  • 60% reduction in year-over-year manager turnover. 
  • 72% of participating managers reported improvement in all 5 of the measured leadership behaviors.
  • 89% of participants said they would recommend MicroActions to others at MacGrill.

Transportation Industry

All organizations face their own unique management challenges and so success is measured in many different ways. This is what we discovered at a major transportation company (let’s call it ‘MTC’). At MTC, employees were widely disgruntled and the relationships between managers and employees were deteriorating. 

Middle managers are the key

To correct for this, MTC’s ground-level managers committed to daily leadership actions for 90 days. The results:

  • 80% demonstrated an interest in improving their leadership behaviors.
  • 91% increase in nominations for improved supervisors.


Here’s what they’re saying: 

It’s brought a lot of discussion amongst myself and my co-workers. Each morning we share what our activity for the day is, and it’s helpful to simply acknowledge that we may be stressed, or we are having a hard time focusing or being positive. Before ProHabits, we may not have been so open but now with our daily activities. — HR manager, health consulting

I really love this new initiative! The messages that I receive each morning are like a hand on my shoulder saying, I’m taking care of you, listen to me and take a moment to think. — Manager, Testing industry

I was able to coach some of my chefs to help increase their output by 20%. I worked on ways to maximize productivity while staying organized by utilizing their work area more efficiently.— Managing Chef, MacGrill

This has taught me to take a step back and breathe and enjoy life, whether it be work life or home life! — Admin, Large franchise 

The takeaway

Targeting the relationships between managers and teams is the next leap in organizational culture. By reinforcing key desired behaviors through daily actions, organizations are tapping into new levels of leadership. And although this reimagining of leadership development is still being worked out, the results are pointing to a massive reserve of potential that is waiting for organizations to tap into. 

John Paul

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