The perception by employees that management’s behaviour matches its words is the foundation of an organizational culture that is ethical and high-performing. Middle managers are key to maintaining this behavioural integrity. When they ‘Walk the Talk’ – acting as they expect their team to act – they have a positive effect both on their subordinates’ performance and on their own.
Unfortunately, middle managers often find this vital behavioural integrity undermined by inconsistent or contradictory policies, initiatives and decisions from higher levels of the organization that they, as middle managers, must communicate and sell to their teams. For example, they might be told to communicate that ‘safety comes first’, while also being asked to implement compensation policies that encourage safety short cuts.
A recent study, by professors Hannes Leroy of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), Tony Simons from Cornell University, Elizabeth A. Tuleja from the University of Notre Dame, and Sean A. Way of Monash University, explored two crucial questions at the heart of successful middle management: 1) why middle management behavioural integrity leads to higher employee performance, and 2) how the upper levels of the organization can strengthen rather than weaken this behavioural integrity.
The researchers found that the behavioural integrity of managers encouraged better employee performance – going above-and-beyond their responsibilities, staying late to beat a deadline or picking up the slack of a sick colleague – motivated by a desire to see their colleagues and their organization as a whole succeed. Thus, a middle manager’s behavioural integrity increases that manager’s performance level indirectly – because it is based the performance level of his or her subordinates. But the study also found that behavioural integrity has a direct impact on the middle manager’s performance as evaluated by superiors.
However, when organizational and senior management support are missing and middle managers are forced by corporate realities or decisions made above their heads to communicate or implement contradictory policies and directives, their behavioural integrity is compromised and any benefits are lost.
The study offers these four strategies through which the senior levels of a company can increase organizational support:
1. Persuasive Tools and a Voice. Senior leaders should equip middle managers with the arguments and the persuasive tools that will help them sell and implement top management policy decisions to their subordinates. This process not only helps middle managers to sell new policies or initiatives, but just as importantly, it allows middle managers themselves to buy into these new policies. The research showed that if middle managers are given an opportunity to voice their concerns or objections, they will feel, at the very least, that these policies were not forced on them without any regard to their opinions or needs. Being given a voice increases a middle manager’s perception of the organization’s support, which can make a big difference when he or she must sell higher-level decisions.
2. Middle Management Discretion. Senior leaders should clearly define the areas where middle managers have discretion on implementing organizational policies. The more opportunities middle managers have to make decisions — for example, how a certain policy should be implemented — the greater the chance for those managers to maintain their behavioural integrity.
3. Top Leader Responsibility. Senior leaders have the responsibility to help middle managers meet their commitment, and they must be consistent in fulfilling that responsibility.
4. Behavioural Integrity Training. Behavioural integrity challenges are not always the result of systemic or structural barriers, such as inconsistent or contradictory policies or lack of persuasive tools. In some cases, middle managers need guidance or training to help them raise their behavioural integrity. For example, according to the researchers, middle managers could receive training in asking for and making commitments, clarifying values, and making prompt and clear apologies when something goes wrong.
Access the full research paper: What’s in It for Me? Behavioral Integrity and Performance. Sean Way, Tony Simons, Hannes Leroy, Elizabeth A. Tuleja. Journal of Business