Middle Managers, Colleagues, and Service Climate

Middle Managers, Colleagues, and Service Climate

It should not be a surprise to hear these two expressions from middle managers during a leadership training program:  1) “top managers should take this program”, and 2) “our colleagues should assume the same vision”. Undoubtedly, these expressions show the expectation of these managers to talk the same language with top managers and colleagues, in order to work coherently among levels and areas within the organization. It is not common to observe a strong alignment among areas or departments according to the moods and style of managers to dealing with external and internal issues.

Here we will focus on the second expression as we consider very important to analyze the relationship between middle managers and their colleagues and how it impacts the organizational climate. It is quite common that the group of middle managers trained whether they belong to the same area or not, all of them expect that their colleagues assume the same vision and practices at work. We have learned that through the most of training programs executed for middle managers from different companies. Although a training program can be a great tool to foster middle managers’ leadership in order to build and strengthen the organizational climate, it is not the only action to consider for that purpose. Thus, it is necessary to focus on another key aspect: colleagues of middle managers. Then, a question arises: how the relationship among middle managers from different areas impacts the creation and strengthening of organizational climate, and particularly the service climate?

If we plan to improve the organizational climate, also called general climate, it could include different characteristics or dimensions about this climate. Frequently, companies try to promote among others, these characteristics: teamwork and cooperation, fluid and positive communication, participation, empowerment, training, recognition, support among areas. If these characteristics are experienced homogeneously in each area, the climate will be strong and the general environment will be perceived positively by employees. To achieve that, the orientation and style which every boss is applying will be crucial in each area, also the type of experiences that he is generating for employees, and the daily interaction with colleagues of other areas. This situation will influence the interactions among areas, and how the employees perceive the general environment. Thus, to create a positive climate firstly bosses at middle level have to learn how they can implement those organizational practices. Then, it will be possible to build and sustain the general climate. If a group of middle managers develop their skills and competencies to apply these practices efficiently, but their colleagues do not do the same, it will be very difficult to maintain a solid general climate within the organization. The different language that middle managers are speaking will be the main obstacle. While some of them are encouraging, for example, teamwork and cooperation among areas, others are focusing exclusively on their tasks leaving aside teamwork and cooperation or other important practices. That situation generates variability in the employees’ perception about their working environment, and so there will be a weak general climate. Therefore, a common recommendation is to include all the middle managers, not just a group of them, in order to develop their skills and competencies homogenously for applying the right practices in each organizational area. That way the company will be able to create a positive overall climate. However, companies frequently do not use this criterion. It is probably one of the reasons why some companies observe contradictory climates among its areas. It is important to emphasize that although a training process for middle managers can be useful to promote a positive climate, other factors should be considered, for example: selection process, evaluation, promotion, and especially the guidance and influence that comes from top management, and the type of relationship they forge with their colleagues. When we analyze that relationship we have to focus on the informal interactions, not just the formal aspects. The informal field is normally underestimated, but this is a key way to forge the moods of work and to strengthen a positive atmosphere for people. What each middle manager apply and practice in every area and the type of relationship among middle managers, particularly the informal relationship will be decisive to sustain a positive climate. Hence, companies should be interested about this relationship and how it can be reinforced through different actions and activities. However, the challenge will be even greater when trying to build a focused climate, a service climate in this case.

The general climate does not have a focus on something concrete, so it is also called climate of wellbeing, as Schneider and his colleagues suggests, it is a foundation, necessary but insufficient to build a focused climate. In the other hand, focused climate is aiming something concrete, for example, the strategic result and/or specific behaviors for some organizational processes. When analyzing service climate we focus on customer satisfaction and loyalty through some processes for achieving the strategic result. Although several mechanisms are required in order to build and strengthen a focused climate, here we analyze those who depend specifically on middle managers’ orientation and style as leaders in each area or department. It has been demonstrated in several studies that leadership is the strongest predictor of organizational climate and culture. Therefore, from our perspective, if we want to build a focused climate, a service climate in this case, the leadership style of each middle manager will be determinant, and also how he is oriented for building and sustaining that climate in every organizational area. Then, it is not enough a leadership that promotes a climate of wellbeing, it is also necessary the presence of leaders who know and want build and sustain a climate focused on service. We called that a service leadership. It should be noted that both leaderships are compatible, a general leadership and a focused leadership, in order to build first a climate of wellbeing as a foundation for focused climate.

To analyze in a deep way service climate and the impact of the relationship among middle managers within the organization it is convenient to recall the importance of internal service as many studies have shown since the 80s. That is the organizational practice that promotes efficient service among areas of a company, which means how they interact and respond to the needs and requirements from every area. This practice, as studies have demonstrated, is required to foster service quality for customers. Although internal service is a critical factor to forge organizational competitiveness and distinction, commonly it is a weak aspect in many public and private companies. Hallowell, Schlesinger and Zornitsky presented an interesting research which demonstrated that companies first must begin to address the needs of its internal customers in order to deliver service quality to satisfy external customers.  In our experience we have observed that departments of marketing or customer service in many companies cannot get that every program or activity be properly focused on customers. It occurs because the boss of those departments does not have the same service orientation, so he speaks a different language and does not understand the needs of other departments and the functioning of the company as a whole. This problem cannot be fixed through regulation or formal procedures because it requires an original service style with a positive attitude from managers. So, they will be able to emphasize the service orientation and encourage specific employees’ service behaviors. It will be the path to foster a reliable and friendly internal service. This practice will be like a turbine to generate a distinguished customer focus in every organizational department. It is relevant to consider that employees who deliver service quality for external customer need that their colleagues of other areas execute their tasks showing the same service competencies. The service competencies and service attitude should certainly be encouraged by those who manage each department: the middle managers. Frequently these managers are focused on formal task and technical performance and do not know how to connect these aspects with a service focus. They usually do not receive the guidance and orientation to understand that connection.

What happens when only a few managers develop a service attitude and service competencies to deliver service quality?  If there are managers without the same service orientation it will cause conflicts, interferences, discomfort, and that situation will be the main obstacle for building and sustaining a strong service climate within the organization. Customer experiences will also be tremendously affected, generating negative or poor customers’ perception about the value that the company is trying to deliver. We have verified this kind of consequence in some case studies.

It is important to note, according to research findings, that climate strength will be higher when organizational areas are more interdependent, when there is high within-unit social interaction, and when work units are more cohesive and have a strong identity. So, the question is: who handle these issues? It must be clear that every middle manager in charge of each area is the executive who promotes interdependence, interaction, and a strong or weak identity. If these aspects are not consistently promoted in each area, certainly a strong climate will not be fostered throughout the organization. Thus, to build a strong climate should be a significant goal for companies because when they achieve that goal it is more likely that employees consistently perform as a collective in order to get the strategic results. That way, companies will avoid the presence of weak climates that produce inconsistencies, and moreover they will prevent negative climates that affect seriously the implementation of the right policies and practices. The presence of that type of climates will affect enormously the achievement of strategic results and it will be difficult to forge the support for a positive climate focused on service. Therefore, it is a priority that middle managers act consistently in each area according to the service policies and practices. In other words, middle managers should send a coherent message and promote clearly the service vision and give support to employees as they expect. If only a few middle managers behave that way, but their colleagues do not show a consistent behavior, then only some areas will have strong climate and others will have weak or negative climates. That environment will affect employees’ energy and enthusiasm reducing the value that companies try to deliver for their customers. As Schneider and his colleagues argues: “to maximize the likelihood of meeting organizational processes and goals, it is essential to promote consistent and focused strongly a positive climate”. This crucial task should be assumed by each middle manager, not only in his area, but also as a characteristic of the relationship among colleagues. Thus, it is convenient to focus on middle managers’ relationship in order to know how they are really interacting in the daily routine. That way companies can determine whether the group of middle managers has assumed the same vision and service focus at work, and if they have developed the competencies and positive attitudes to generating internal service. So, it will facilitate effective employees’ performance and trust to sustain a healthy informal environment which encourages the individual and organizational positive learning.

The entire group of middle managers within the organization should be seen as a fundamental group to build the general climate and to sustain the service climate. Thus, employees will show higher performances through the organizational processes and it will favor the achievement of strategic results. In the other hand, it could be a high risk if companies take care only of some middle managers but not of all of them. If companies use to focus only on formal and technical aspects it could also generate conflicts and negative experiences for employees and customers. A strong service climate could be the right path to avoid that.