Is your company’s culture crumbling? Your middle managers may be the problem.

Experts say bad middle management is often a big part of rotten workplace culture.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

The idea of “workplace culture” often seems like an enigma, an unknowable concept with a malleable definition. But for those who’ve worked under a tyrannical boss—the kind of manager who stalks a row of cubicles with the menace of Darth Vader, maybe minus the heavy breathing—the idea of a broken or toxic workplace culture is all too familiar.

When the relationship between an employee and their manager breaks down, it can portend dire results for companies—or at least convince employees to quit. An October survey from the Predictive Index found that among nearly 2,000 US–based employees, 63% of respondents who think their managers are “bad” are considering leaving their companies in the next 12 months. The survey also found that most respondents felt their manager’s biggest shortcoming was poor communication.

Fixing broken workplace culture is a big and lucrative business: This year’s Management Consulting Services Global Market Report found that the global management consulting industry is expected to reach $895.5 billion in 2021. But you don’t need to empty the corporate coffers for pricey consultants to start patching up a workplace that’s ripped apart at the seams. HR Brew spoke with several experts who contend that corporate culture begins at the top of the hierarchy and radiates downward. And they say a lack of honest communication about difficulties on the job is usually at the heart of all dysfunctional cultures.

No vulnerability no fun

Whether the perfectionists among us want to admit it or remain in denial, everyone makes mistakes at work. But when mistakes are frowned upon, and when those in charge can’t admit to their own blunders, it can create a tense atmosphere that slowly erodes culture.

Zach Handler, a corporate culture consultant and career coach, told HR Brew he defines “vulnerability” as “being able to admit that you don’t know something...being able to admit that you’re making a mistake, and know that you’re not going to be punished for that.” Handler sees a tendency to exude an air of confidence and mastery in some corporate environments, which he believes to be a direct consequence of a lack of trust. Specifically, it occurs when a worker feels “there’s going to be some sort of retaliation or punishment for being honest about mistakes that they’re making or when something didn’t go right,” Handler explained.

Pretending everything is peachy when it’s not—aside from inviting derisive comparisons to the “This is fine” meme—causes culture and the work itself to suffer further, noted Handler. To that end, companies need a more proactive approach, in which middle managers are trained not just to assign tasks, but to manage their workers like human beings.

“We put people into management positions, because, maybe they’re the most senior engineer on the team,” Handler said. “But that doesn’t mean that they know how to manage people. So really training people is a big part of it.”

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Normalizing the pitfalls

Sometimes, cultural dysfunction persists because those in charge don’t know how to properly address it. This is a prevailing theme in the experience of HR consultant Tiffany Castagno, who told HR Brew that issues at the heart of a nasty culture get swept under the rug for different reasons. “There’s either awareness [of a problem] and kind of this fear to address it, or [managers are] ill-equipped to address it, because there’s no programs or systems or tools to do so,” she said.

Again, poor management can have negative ripple effects for workers. An August 2020 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that “84% of American workers say poorly trained people managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress.”

Ultimately, better training—or, in many cases, any training at all—is necessary when it comes to defining managerial roles, Handler said. “Training managers to be better managers is a big part of changing the culture,” he explained, especially when “people are looking for managers to be a coach.”

One way openness can be encouraged is by establishing shared values, or at least making a desire to learn a part of the everyday dynamic. “I’ll take a learn-it-all over a know-it-all approach any day,” Ryan Lehrkinder, manager of people and culture at the software company Collective[i], told HR Brew. “Cultivating a workplace culture that truly embraces curiosity, in my view, is critical to the success of not just the company, but also of its people.”

Leaders need mentors, too

Setting managers up for success involves a normalization of training akin to what employees get during the onboarding process. Bryan Hancock, McKinsey’s global leader of talent, said in a podcast earlier this year that management training is often overlooked in the corporate world. “The vast majority of corporate training covers onboarding, compliance, and the rollout of new products or systems, with relatively little on leadership development,” he said.

Above all, it’s necessary to instill leadership knowledge in the people given leadership positions, Handler said. “Things like how to run effective meetings, how to have good one-on-one’s, people development, all these skills,” he explained.

This is echoed by Lehrkinder, who insists that “continuous learning” be driven home as a corporate mantra. “Managers need to be skilled to navigate and motivate people who all have different needs...everyone in a company should be learning and upskilling,” she explained.

With that mindset, it’s possible that manager training will make many bosses seem less like Darth Vader and more like Obi-Wan Kenobi (or at least anyone else from Star Wars who isn’t evil).—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

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