Why? First of all, many middle managers wrestle with the transition from peer to supervisor. They worry that their former colleagues may not see them as having earned their new authority, or that these colleagues resent them for having been promoted (especially if one or more of these colleagues had been up for manager role - and didn't get it).
Second, middle managers are often in what professors Eric Anicich and Jacob B. Hirsch call role conflict, where "the norms and expectations associated with being a leader (e.g., assertiveness) are incompatible with the norms and expectations associated with being a subordinate (e.g., deference)." Middle managers are constantly being expected to shift from giving performance feedback to their direct reports to receiving performance feedback from their own managers.
Third, as The Boston Consulting Group's research indicates, middle managers are viewed as "a neglected but critical group". While many organizations focus their learning and development resources on on-boarding new hires and developing more senior leaders, middle managers don't often have targeted training and coaching opportunities. They're often left to rely on feedback skills they've learned from their current bosses, who may or may not be great role models. (And if you're the boss, that means you!)
Despite these challenges, middle managers can also support their people to become more self-directed and self-motivated, which is what leaders need them to do to grow the organization. Middle managers can also ask for the feedback they need from their managers to grow in their roles, and pave the path forward for future leadership roles.
Here are three specific skills that leaders need to help their middle managers develop to be successful in giving and receiving feedback:
1. "Embrace the awkward."
While it may have been a while since you made the transition from peer to boss, you need to remember that this is a new and significant challenge for your middle managers.
Middle managers need to let their former peers/current direct reports know that: 1) this may feel awkward for both of you because roles have shifted - and that's normal; 2) your job is to hold them accountable for results while making sure they also provide them with the direction and support they need to achieve those results; and 3) having regular, timely, positive and developmental feedback conversations will ensure that there will be no surprises (other than a bagel brunch for their birthday.)
2. Set the expectation that they will give and ask for feedback.
If your middle managers see giving feedback as something they do with your direct reports, and receiving feedback as something they do with your manager, they are missing a major opportunity to improve. They need to let their direct reports know that they're committed to becoming the most effective manager and employee they can be, and in order to do that, they'd like their feedback on what they can be improving (as well as what's working). And then, middle managers have need to commit to really listening to that feedback, receiving it without defensiveness, and taking action on it.
With their own managers, middle managers should ask if he or she is open to hearing their thoughts about what they're doing that's effective, and what they could do more of or less of to be even more helpful. With both direct reports and managers, a thank for being willing to participate in feedback conversations goes a long way!
3. Make feedback a regular occurrence, not a special occasion.
Whether your company offers a robust development program for middle managers, or very little at all, it's still likely that twice a year, middle managers are offered some insight into how to talk about performance when prepping for mid-year and year-end reviews. But performance reviews should be a review of the feedback that employees have received over the last several months - not a new discussion revealing information that could have been helpful months ago.
In every 1:1 meeting that managers have with their direct reports, they can make giving and receiving feedback a part of the agenda. After every project, they can make giving and receiving feedback a part of the debrief. The goal is to make feedback a regular part of your daily diet, rather than something saved for a special occasion.
As a leader, you can help your middle managers to have a positive, powerful impact up, down and across the organization by acknowledging the awkwardness of new interpersonal dynamics, modeling effective feedback behaviors, and providing them with the training and coaching they need to succeed.