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Boosting trust in your middle managers

Research has found trust in middle managers is low, so how do we improve the situation?

Recent corporate scandals have put the spotlight on the importance to business performance of customer trust. But trust between colleagues is just as important. Yet new research by CMI and leadership events specialist Top Banana has found that only one in three (36%) of the 1,456 UK managers surveyed for the Middle Manager Lifeline report 'fully trust' their senior leaders. However, 72% of senior leaders believe that they’re 'highly trusted as managers'.

Why should we care about this gulf between perception and reality? Because middle managers are pivotal to organisational success. They are the connectors; the links between senior teams and those delivering operationally; the points of contact for customers, stakeholders and divisions; the motivators keeping morale high when pressures rise. A breakdown in trust between middle managers and those at the top is bad news for productivity.

The underlying problem

Given that 85% of business leaders and managers agree trust is crucial to business performance, it’s surprising that leaders don’t take more opportunities to share feedback and business updates, and welcome greater input from their middle managers. Two in five (41%) middle managers said their organisation’s management style was bureaucratic, which can prevent the creativity and collaboration that helps many firms thrive.

Filtering information through the ranks is key to ensuring that middle managers feel invested in the business’ future and performance. The saying goes that you’re only as strong as your weakest link; without clear communication from the top middle managers are unable to do their job as effectively and neither can their teams. The Middle Manager Lifeline survey revealed that only 31% of managers are 'very confident' in communicating company strategy and guidance to their teams. Senior leaders should therefore invest more time in nurturing their teams and being more open. Middle managers want to understand senior management’s thinking on important issues (63%) and see them be able to admit their mistakes (54%).

Bridging the trust gap

HR teams must help open up communication between colleagues, providing management skills development and making sure middle managers are equipped to understand the language of senior management and relay it to their teams. The need for such development is clear: only 31% of managers feel 'very confident' in their ability to communicate company strategy to their staff.

In addition, the Middle Manager Lifeline sets out a practical framework consisting of five essential elements to guide organisations in creating an open culture that will bridge the trust gap:

Communications – committing to an open and honest relationship with middle managers.

Integrity – challenging everyone, regardless of seniority, to act according to stated values.

Visibility – ensuring those at the top are seen to be accountable for their actions and open to challenge.

Interaction – creating meaningful opportunities for colleagues to meet and feed back to senior management.

Connections – investing in training and development at all levels to equip them with professional skills to communicate and manage their teams.

Applying this framework will enable middle managers to become more agile, effective, and connected than ever before. Leaders can recognise and support middle managers, creating an open and honest environment, to enable them to thrive and act as key connectors across organisations.

Patrick Woodman is head of research and communications at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI)