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

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

In this first part we focus on the central role of middle managers in relation to the organizational culture. A role that often does not receive enough attention. Generally, these managers when assuming positions of greater responsibility are oriented basically towards their formal activity and productive management. Although necessary, the truth is that it is not enough. Many organizations pay very little attention to cultural aspects. They are not aware that organizational culture has an effective impact on the behavior of newcomers and all employees as a whole. It is convenient firstly, to be clear about what we mean by organizational culture. We think it is appropriate to recall some ways of understanding culture as it simplifies the explanation of this complex concept. Culture is “the character of the organization” (Selznick), it is “the personality of a company” (Gellerman), are “the general norms for appropriate behavior in the organization” (Fleishman), are “the beliefs, values that constitute the guide of behavior” (Evan). Schein´s approach is different and illustrative: “a set of shared basic assumptions that were learned as they solved the problems of external adaptation and internal integration of the organization”. For Schein basic assumptions are the essence of culture, which compares with what Argyris calls “theories in use”. Thus, he considers two important cultural aspects: the external environment and the internal integration, and proposes to articulate them. The set of basic assumptions defines relevant issues for people as: what to pay attention to, what things mean, how to react emotionally to what is happening, and what actions to take in different types of situations. It can be noted that culture influences invisibly- it is built in the minds and consciousness of people-and has a great visible impact on the different organizational levels-manifests itself in behavior. We prefer to use the term convictions to refer to these basic assumptions and we believe that convictions along with real values[1] are indeed the essence of culture. It is important to keep in mind that culture is composed of different elements and not only by assumptions or convictions, these include: symbols, language, beliefs, espoused values[2], rituals, etc. In addition culture evolves over time, as members of the organization face various problems, culture influences and constrains their actions, but it is also influenced by their actions. Thus Pettigrew coined a very eloquent phrase: “man creates culture and culture creates man”. It is important to consider the effect attributed to culture: integration, commitment and control. This helps us understand the great cultural influence in the life of members within the organizations.  It is clear that culture is a fundamental concept to understand what happens in an organization and why it happens. Although there are several studies that demonstrate the unquestionable role of the founder, and also the role of the CEO, in relation to the creation and development of the organizational culture, it is very scarce the study about the role of middle managers related to culture. For Schein, culture is created, impregnated, evolved and manipulated by leaders, thus he emphasizes that leadership and culture are the two sides of the same coin. According to our purpose the immediate question is: what is the influence of middle management leadership over the organizational culture? We consider that leadership of the Top management is not enough, since middle managers’ leadership exerts a particular influence on its level and atmosphere. These managers, more than top managers, interact constantly with employees, and share many experiences with them. Thus, we propose that middle management leadership is crucial in the strengthening of the organizational culture. To explain this, we share some central ideas and reflections with a practical vision as we are motivated by the desire for recognizing and reinforcing the contribution that middle managers provide to the cultural reality of each organization.

In order to analyze the role of middle managers, it is necessary to review the concept of culture and its main characteristics. If we understand culture as the character or personality of the organization, we should accept that it must be forged in some way, and that it is also unique, as in a person the character is forged and is unique. Similarly, culture is unique and it is difficult and probably not very useful to compare it with others. If we prefer the idea that culture is a set of norms and values that guide behavior, we must consider that those norms and values have to be transmitted and shared among the members of a group. And if we think that culture is the set of basic assumptions or convictions, these must be learned and shared by the group of members of an organization. Thus, we highlight the characteristics of culture that we consider are closely related to the role of middle managers: culture is forged by leaders at each organizational level, it is shared and implies learning, it is transmitted to new comers, it is connected with organizational effectiveness facing the external environment, and it is a source of collective identity and commitment to the internal atmosphere. The questions that arise are: how do middle managers intervene in the effort to forge the unique character of the organization? How do they convey the values and norms that guide employees’ behavior? How do they generate learning about assumptions and convictions for facing successfully the external and internal environment?

The first influence to create a culture comes undoubtedly from the founder, since he usually has clear and solid ideas about what to do and how to do it. Thus, founders like to transfer their vision to their partners and employees, and tend to choose colleagues and subordinates who share that same vision. When the founder retires, a source of cultural strengthening is generated, through the new leaders at the top management if they are influencing strongly all organizational levels, but especially the middle level. Another key source for developing and strengthening culture is through the learning experiences of members of each group in the organization. Here we can see the crucial role of middle managers to ensure that culture is learned and shared by every group in the organization.

If we expect that middle managers play this relevant role, it will be necessary that first they be appropriately selected, indoctrinated and committed. After this process, they can foster great experiences in order to forge cultural employees’ learning in each organizational group. To understand how middle managers contribute to the development and strengthening of culture, we analyze the mechanisms they can use according to Schein’s study: primary and secondary mechanisms. Primary mechanisms that they use to create or develop culture include: what they focus on, what they measure and control, how they react to critical incidents, how they manage and allocate resources, what they teach and model, how they guide employees, what they reward, and how they select, promote and fire. It is important to note that middle managers learn-more or less- the real convictions and values that come from top managers, and they must comply with their policies and guidelines. But also middle managers have their own convictions and values, so they influence the employees’ learning according to what they are convinced is the best for his group. For example, although they are influenced by top management, they emphasize one thing or another, depending on their conviction or leadership style, which is often not consistently connected with organizational culture. Middle managers’ focus and what they are controlling continuously is a strong signal for employees’ behavior. This focus is frequently on the productive work and economic result, but not appropriately integrated with the essential cultural aspects: values and convictions.

Likewise, the way that middle managers react to crises and adverse situations sends strong messages for those who depend on them. Therefore, employees learn ways to behave and react that are aligned or not with the organizational culture. But above all, what they teach and promote and the guidance they provide to their subordinates represent a set of crucial efforts to generate cultural learning experiences. The questions that arise are: how aware are they about this? , what kind of support they receive to strengthen and align the culture in each organizational group? , and how much time and effort they dedicate to this essential task?

On the other hand, middle managers also send important messages to employees when they recommend rewards, when they promote subordinates, and when they hire and fire people.  In relation to secondary mechanisms, middle managers try to reinforce culture, it includes: organizational structure, organizational system and procedures, rites and rituals, spaces and buildings, relevant stories, and philosophy. Here we have to note that mainly middle managers play a visible role when participating in rites and rituals, and when transmitting stories about important facts, and also when they behave according to the philosophy and organizational values. Navy is a vivid example about this, an institution with strong culture that transmits it vigorously through those who lead at the middle level, especially lieutenants and commanders. So, middle managers become an important source for the socialization since the entry of new members. Newcomers’ old clothes are replaced by the naval uniform, their hair is cut short according to naval regulation, and they are subject to severe consequences if they don’t behave according to what is expected. There are specific rites, rituals and procedures to indoctrinate the new members and then, they get a solid cultural learning.

For us the central middle managers’ role is about the socialization process and the learning they generate in order to strengthening and perpetuating organizational culture. This process facilitate the way employees learn cultural values, norms, beliefs, convictions and behaviors required to participate effectively as members in the organization. Thus, the character of the organization is strengthened with an authentic identity that is shared by the members of each group. Newcomers need to learn what is necessary to perform in their new role, not only the job, but the social, political, and informal aspects about all the elements of the organizational culture. In the reality many companies are basically interested for generating employees’ learning in order to get efficient performances, and they are mainly focused on the external environment, but they don’t know how to articulate this task with the internal atmosphere and its culture. As Van Maanen affirms culture remains only as it is transmitted from one generation to another. Middle managers are the continuous transmitters and generators of social learning for newcomers, so these managers should help them to learn how to behave and perform about his/her role and job, and also about the moods to understand the relationships and behaviors within the group and the organization. But it must be kept in mind that it is not easy to transmit culture, since its content is mainly informal, spontaneous, tacit and emergent, and it means much more than simply reciting a story, mission, values or goals. As Schneider suggests, sources more natural and spontaneous, less controlled by the organization are probably the most effective way to transmit the desired culture. However, the informal and spontaneous atmosphere is often insufficiently understood and carefully attended by top and middle managers. Culture requires a free, real and active employees’ participation through the deepest convictions and values about the relationships and social experiences that current and new members are not able to articulate. Hence, the imperative that middle managers assume the role to promoting this learning, and for this purpose they require a convenient preparation in order to help them to exert a consistent leadership. Despite the clear contribution middle managers can do to strengthening culture, this is poorly understood and insufficiently oriented in many organizations. It is quite frequent that the formal aspects, the productive performance, the technical operational issues, and the mere economical results be the main focus without a strong connection with the essence of the organizational culture. So, companies cannot use with efficacy their culture as the foundation to foster an effective, attractive and unified group of members with a high commitment. Perhaps that is why many companies are seen like simple businesses or entities without a transcendent mission in the lives of their people as they don’t forge a profound character with authentic values and convictions.

Middle managers are the source of information and influence during the socialization process and cultural learning for newcomers and members of each group in the organization. This is a key role to get effective and consistent employees’ performance and behavior, but also it is a challenge to managing the technological changes that come through the new organizational era and what it implies for people. For the next articles we will analyze the role of middle managers in relation to organizational effectiveness, the strength of culture, and their participation in organizational culture change. We will also analyze their role in relation to the development and strengthening of a Service Culture.


  • Selznick, P. (1957).
  • Gellerman, S.W. (1959).
  • Fleishman, E. A. (1953).
  • Evan, W.M. (1963).
  • Schein, E. (1985, 2010).
  • Argyris, C. (1957).
  • Pettigrew, A.M. (1979).
  • Van Maanen, J. and Barley, S.R. (1985).
  • Schneider, B., Ehrhart, M. and Macey, W. (2013).                                                                                 

[1] We call real values to those moral values that managers really are utilizing every time they have to decide something or to take some actions. We emphasize the term real values in order to differentiate from values that are espoused by the company and managers.

[2] As Schein explains, espoused values are those that are part of the ideology or philosophy of the organization, and those that are rationalizations or only aspirations for the future, but not necessarily those values are congruent with the underlying assumptions that guide performance.