What is the role of Middle Managers in strengthening Organizational Culture? Part II

What is the role of Middle Managers in strengthening Organizational Culture? Part II

In Part I we sustained that culture is mainly forged through the leadership role at each level and group within the organization. Although there are other factors influencing the culture´s development, and therefore must be taken into account, such as: the stage of the life cycle and age of the organization, its size, the external environment, the internal atmosphere, new technologies, etc. However, we agree with Schein[1] that while there are various influential factors in the culture, the strongest are the leaders. Thus, our purpose is to identify the role of middle managers, and in this second part, in relation to organizational effectiveness and culture strength. It is important to be aware that the central role of middle managers is deployed in a general way through the learning process that they foster during the social experiences in each organizational group. For this reason, in this Part II our specific questions are: How can these managers contribute to achieving organizational effectiveness?, and how can they strengthen the organizational culture?

Firstly, we have to define organizational effectiveness, and for this, we analyze the Perez Lopez[2] approach which refers to the interrelationship among three organizational dimensions that make possible the effective functioning of the organization: 1) efficacy, that is the ability to define and achieve sufficient economical results that allow continuity, 2) attractiveness, the ability to create a positive operational learning environment that drives the company´s competitiveness, and 3) unity, the effort to forge members’ commitment to an external and internal organizational mission.  Organizational effectiveness is mainly understood through the efficacy which means that a company obtains the financial and economical results. However, effectiveness must be analyzed beyond and not only through performance and results. Perez Lopez, for instance, proposes that effectiveness requires an integration of the organizational dimensions, that is, in order to be effective and achieve the economical results, the employees’ learning process must be fostered, and this effort must be based on a mission and shared values that provide a profound meaning and influence the employees’ behavior. It is necessary to clarify that when analyzing the organizational effectiveness, we should not only aim at the performance that achieves the financial results but as a requirement for this issue, we have to focus on the integration and balance of the three organizational dimensions. In that sense, there is a clear relationship between effectiveness and organizational culture, and studies have been carried out on how the influence of culture on organizational effectiveness occurs. There are three identified reasons for this relationship[3]: 1) culture can be a vehicle for communicating and accomplishing organizational goals, 2) culture can be a tool for management to informally influence or even control employee behavior without introducing the more negative consequences that typically accompany numerous rules and bureaucracy, 3) culture can foster the employees’ commitment and loyalty, which contribute to forge greater effort and responsibility. In short, in order to identify an effective organization, we must take into account the degree and manner of achieving the different results inherent to the functioning of a real organization[4], not only the economical results but also social, human, and ethical aspects, as we have seen through the three referred cultural reasons.

Now we can clearly notice the role of middle managers to promote the organizational effectiveness: 1) managers communicate the organizational goals to employees, and they do that with conviction if they find a consistent meaning for that purpose, 2) managers are interested in understanding and managing the informal field within their groups if they receive the same treatment from top managers and develop the right competencies for interpersonal relationships and team building, 3) managers use to foster employees’ commitment and loyalty focused on the organizational mission and group mission, if they are really committed with those missions. In order to fulfill this role, middle managers must understand the organizational strategy and goals, must have sufficient resources and facilities, and must allocate tasks, deadlines, and distribute resources appropriately, all of which must be aligned according to the convictions and values they share with top management. This way, middle managers can achieve not only the expected results but also the operational learning that fosters more efficient processes, higher quality of products and services, better internal and external service, greater operational capacity, positive interaction among employees, etc. Likewise, middle managers can contribute to employees’ development, not only about the professional or technical aspects but also their personal growth sustained through the qualitative ethical aspect. All this effort oriented according to a clear mission that is not only focused on clients but also on the employees. Middle managers are firstly and strongly committed with this mission. In other words, in order to generate organizational effectiveness it is not enough to foster employees’ performance to achieve the financial results, it is necessary that these managers fulfill their role by integrating the three dimensions that drive the functioning of the organization. When this integration is sufficiently achieved we can see an effective organization in the whole sense, not only from the economical view as it often happens.

Middle managers’ leadership is crucial for integrating these three dimensions into each organizational group even so they are not receiving enough attention and support. For example, while organizational goals are formulated and communicated from top management, the deployment and achievement of these goals require the right implementation of the operational processes and this task needs the leadership of middle managers. In this regard, the way employees perform and manage the situations that arise in the work according to the organizational practices is a fundamental task of middle managers. And the effort for generating high levels of employees’ commitment and loyalty is a challenge that middle managers have to face when leading each organizational group. Nontheless, frequently middle managers lack of competencies and support to succeed these central tasks.

Specifically, the effective functioning of an organization requires that middle managers know how to integrate and put in practice the three dimensions in the daily work in every organizational group. It is possible through the following key factors: 1) a trustworthy relationship between top managers and middle managers, 2) a trustworthy relationship among the middle managers who are the head of the organizational groups, and 3) the right promotion of the organizational culture by each middle manager in each group. We have written some articles about factors 1 and 2, so we must now focus on factor 3 which is related to culture strength.

Undoubtedly, the task for strengthening the desired organizational culture should be facilitated if there is a strong and positive relationship between top managers and middle managers. However, in many cases there is a lack of interest and enough effort for consolidating this relationship. As we know, convictions, beliefs and values from top management are the foundation for culture, but when we refer to culture strength there is a shift from describing values and beliefs to describing how much agreement or acceptance those convictions and values have in the organization. Obviously, the acceptance should come from middle managers in the first place. As we have pointed out in Part I, the informal field within the organization is the natural way for fostering culture, but normally it is not receiving the enough attention. Middle managers are mainly influenced through the formal field, so the possibility for strengthening organizational culture is weakened. Thus, we might think that the stronger relationship, formal and informal, between top and middle managers, the greater possibility for influencing middle managers through those convictions and values. Then, these managers will also influence on the next level through those values which is known as a vertical cultural penetration. Therefore, we could see a case where the organizational culture is strengthened in the different hierarchical levels.

It should also be taken into account that, if we are trying to build a strong culture, we have to consider that culture must be shared by all groups within the organization. To achieve this issue, middle management must do enough effort to strengthening organizational culture in each group where they are leading, which is known as a horizontal cultural penetration. In short, for strengthening the organizational culture top and middle managers must foster vertical and horizontal influences. We know that this situation not only does not happen often, but also requires a concerted effort. In that sense, culture strength is determined by a strong relationship between top and middle management, a solid relationship among middle managers colleagues who are the head of different groups, and the right middle manager´s influence within each organizational group. We have to be aware that each group also develops its own culture or also called sub-culture. This has been defined as a subset of members within the organization who interact regularly, share similar problems, develop collective understandings, and create a way to interpreting the different situations. In addition, personal characteristics of members such as age, ethnicity, education, etc. also contribute to the social cohesion of each sub-culture. In that sense, typical sub-cultures in an organization are developed by department (Marketing, sales, Operations), by type of product (Hardware, Software), by occupation (Engineers, lawyers, accountants, etc.). Then, a key question arises: how can middle managers influence the alignment of sub-cultures with the organizational culture?, and how can they strengthen it?

Reality shows us that subcultures will be created in every organization for the reasons mentioned before, and we agree with Martin[5] who asserts that not all the elements of culture are necessarily shared throughout the organization. Nevertheless, we believe that it is possible and also convenient to achieve unity, which means that all the groups at each organizational level share the essential convictions and values related to the organizational mission. This way we could see the following sub-cultures within the organization: a) sub-cultures that are strongly identified with the core values of the organizational culture, b) sub-cultures that are identically identified with the values of the organizational culture as with their own values, which are not contradictory with the values of the culture, or c) sub-cultures maintaining values that are contradictory to the values of the organizational culture[6]. We believe that in order to achieve an effective organizational functioning it is crucial to forge unity and that is possible if an organization foster the first and second type of sub-culture. This requires that middle managers know and want to strengthen the organizational culture in each group, which means that they are communicating clearly the main convictions and consistent values related to the organizational mission. However, it should be understood that a strong culture does not mean that the organization will achieve an effective functioning and will succeed through the organizational performance and results. This situation let us to understand the need to get a right alignment among the three dimensions mentioned: efficacy, attractiveness and unity, because it is not enough to address one or two of them. It is important to align all three in such a way to meet each organizational challenge in a coherent manner.  For this purpose middle managers become a critical factor. We have experienced several cases training and orienting middle managers in order to help them for strengthening their organizational culture. To face this, we identified that each organizational group had developed a sub-culture mainly based on its task and occupation and also observed that each group was not sufficiently aligned with the core values of the organizational culture. In other words, middle managers basically were orienting employees´ performance toward economical results-efficacy, but did not convey with conviction the main beliefs and values of culture. Our goal was that middle managers share the essential elements of the organizational culture in every group in order to forge unity. This challenge was possible through the development of middle managers’ competencies specifically oriented to foster efficacy, attractiveness and unity. And also we supported middle managers through coaching orientation that was an effective way to help them. All this made them to become aware about the influence they were generating on their groups and how they could improve their leadership style in order to forge the cultural learning that the organization required.

Culture strength is fundamental to the effective functioning of an organization, and this requires that strength comes from a consistent alignment among the sub-cultures within the organization and a coherent integration of the three dimensions referred. Organizations that have sub-cultures with more common elements shared and fewer elements in isolation and/or direct conflict, then the overall culture strength will be high. On the contrary, organizations with different sub-cultures that have few common elements shared, the overall culture strength will be low[7]. It is crucial that middle managers develop their specific competencies and sharpen their leadership style when  the company is trying to foster more common shared cultural elements in each organizational group.

We will analyze the role of middle managers related to organizational culture change in the next article.

[1] Schein, E. (2010).

[2] Pérez López, J.A. (2000).

 [3] Schneider, B., Ehrhart, M., and Macey, W. (2013).

[4] The functioning of a real organization, according to Pérez López approach, is based not only on the formal system but also on the informal field, also called spontaneous system. This way, the functioning of the organization must be studied not only from an economical view, but also from a psychological, social, anthropological and ethical view. This study must be sustained through an integrated human being concept that allows us to understand that people choose freely their own moods and behavior.

[5] Martin (2002).

[6] Van Maanen proposes a classification of sub-cultures: a) intense sub-cultures those that follow the core values of the organization, b) orthogonal sub-cultures those that follow both the values of culture and those of its sub-culture, and c) counterculture sub-cultures that contradict the values of organizational culture. Van Maanen and Barley (1985).

[7] Schneider, B., Ehrhart, M., and Macey, W. (2013).