Let's hear it for middle managers, perhaps one of the most put-upon and unsung groups in the workforce – especially, maybe, in the voluntary sector.
Middle managers get it in the neck from the front-line staff, who are often really committed people, but also stressed, stretched and really grumpy about working conditions. (Incidentally, staff are right to be grumpy in some organisations. We have a toxic game of pass the parcel on the impact of austerity – national government is passing cuts on to local government, which is passing them on to the voluntary sector, which tries to meet the targets of commissioners. Guess who ends up right at the sharp end.)
Middle managers have quite a few woes to deal with. They have no power to decide strategy themselves. They get given projects and targets to manage. They act as shock absorbers for service delivery staff and they have to step in to deliver when emergencies strike. They are mistresses of juggling time and priorities. They are first in the firing line when things go wrong. They are expected to have eyes in the backs of their heads, know the risk management landscape of what they are doing and never cut corners. And they might have been promoted from the front line with little or no training in how to manage staff.
Is it any wonder that those in this key group of staff can feel underappreciated and are often desperate to move on from the organisations we work in?
If I was an HR director and had money to spend, I would invest in my line managers. They probably know the nuts and bolts of the work because they have been doing it themselves recently. But if they don't, put them on the front line for a day or two so they can experience the pressures - a bit like those TV programmes where the boss goes under cover.
The next key focus for development is relationship building. This is the grease that makes all communication flow better. Communication, after all, constitutes the ball bearings of an organisation. We expect line managers to deliver messages all the time about new policies, ways of working, revised targets and so on.
We also expect them to do front-line HR work for us, such as capturing holiday and sick leave information, working out rotas, gathering timesheets and dealing with payroll. Let's train them in HR policies and make sure that they understand them so they don't give misleading information or make promises to staff that they can't fulfil – or just bottle out and push it upstairs.
Let's support them in the first line of having difficult conversations about poor performance, lateness and other issues. They might seem small beer, but could get out of hand later. And a final call to any senior managers who are reading: please look after your squeezed middle.
Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant