Why middle managers need to ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’

Due to the current financial position of the UK, we all know the landscape of public service delivery in is going to change dramatically over the next decade. It would be easy to say that this country should not have such a deficit and look for people to blame, but I’m a great believer in ‘we are where we’re at’ and that we should learn from the past to help us deal with the future.

This is going to be challenging period for everyone in a public sector organization. However, I believe the largest challenge is going to rest at the front-line and middle manager level for the following reasons:

  • There are going to be fewer of them.
  • They are going to be working with an increasingly disengaged workforce.
  • Their capability is going to be questioned.

There are going to be fewer of them:

Senior executives are going to be expected to produce strategies that will provide more with less and, with the percentage budget cuts being talked about, the only way to maintain the frontline delivery of public services is to have truly integrated services. This allows for the rationalization and reduction of ‘back-room’ support functions and reduced layers of management. These reviews will be conducted by senior management and turkeys do not vote for Christmas, so there will be fewer frontline and middle managers. However, why turkeys need to get the vote is the subject of my next post.

They are going to be working with an increasingly disengaged workforce:

In any organization, when there are talks of cuts, staff feel unsettled as they are unsure of their own future positions. Whenever this happens there is a drop in organizational performance, which drains the energy and resilience of some managers. In extreme circumstances the workforce will conduct a number of stoppages and we are already witnessing that in the public sector. On the 8th March 2010 members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union conduct a 48-hour stoppage in response to changes in their redundancy terms. As the cuts in public services are implemented, this could be the first of such stoppages, with the employer trying to minimize the cost of redundancy packages and the workforce feeling unfairly treated.

Their capability is going to be questioned:

Currently, whenever a public sector organization performs poorly, some stakeholders will put the cause of that poor performance down to poor leadership. My personal view is that this is often a digression by the stakeholder, so that they do not have to accept accountability for their own under resourcing. As evidence of this, just take a look at any inquiry into an incident involving the health service, social services or the police service and the criticism is often about how leaders have used their resources and there is never an admission that they were doing their best whilst under resourced.

As a front-line or middle manager in the public sector, a recent example of how your capability is going to be questioned is a research report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) that I mentioned in my article, ‘Excessive bureaucracy hinders performance management’. It is the first in the CIPD’s new ‘building productive public sector workplaces’ series and says, “There is an inadequacy of public sector line-management capability in a range of performance management areas that have a direct impact on service delivery, including absence, stress and conflict management.”

Having worked within both public and private sectors, it is not the quality of the leaders that differs; it is the organizational cultures that exist to either support or hinder them. I would be one of the first to say that I’ve encountered front-line and middle managers who only wanted to be team leaders, but I have also worked with some very good ones.

So, what can you do about it?

Folks, wake up and smell the coffee! You are in the firing line and need to start considering now what you can do about it. There are elements of your new performance landscape that you cannot influence, so focus on the parts that you can. The first, and probably the most important, area that you can influence is your own learning and development. Up until now there has been a generous culture in the public sector, where organizations provides the majority of leadership learning and development required by an individual and those days are about to stop.

If you’re going to survive this tumultuous journey then you are going to have to evidence that your skills, abilities and competencies are equal to or greater than your peer group. One of the obvious ways to do this is to study for a management qualification. However, qualifications are only valid for the day you received them unless they are supported by evidence of your continuing professional development (CPD).

I believe the best way to achieve this evidence is by benchmarking yourself against other leaders and managers, irrespective of which sector they work in. For that, amongst many other reasons, I’m an advocate of the Chartered Manager award. One of the reasons I encourage my clients from the public sector to work towards this award is that, whilst it does evidence the impact that their leadership has had on their own organization, it also places them into the wider community of professional leaders and managers.


You are now faced with a choice. You can become one of the disengaged workforce and complain that successive governments have made a mess of the economy and that the country should not be in this position.

Your other choice is to see current position as an opportunity for you to shine; to evidence your leadership by finding new and more efficient ways of providing the public services you are required to deliver. This option allows you to evidence your skills, abilities and competencies to your employer and your positive approach will also go a long way towards re-engaging your staff.

Take responsibility for navigating yourself and your staff across the new performance landscape and you may even find yourself enjoying the journey.

Article by Alan