LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Annabel Christie

Esther Tippmann

July 10th, 2024

How middle managers derail strategy

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Annabel Christie

Esther Tippmann

July 10th, 2024

How middle managers derail strategy

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Middle managers have many ways to implement a strategy and often do it in ways that are different from what senior executives intended. Annabel Christie and Esther Tippman found ten frequent strategy implementation activities that middle managers use to frustrate original plans. The authors write that company leadership must understand the methods middle managers use to implement or deviate from intended strategies.


When middle managers are tasked by senior executives with implementing strategies, they often do it in a deviated form that is different from what was intended. Prior research finds that at least half of strategies do not get implemented effectively and middle managers often get blamed for blocking strategic change or strategy execution.

Middle managers are not going away despite what internet companies such as Google and Zappos have tried. They can make a big difference in company performance, despite operating under constant stress. Indeed, a recent book by McKinsey partners makes a case that managers hold the keys to the future of work.

There are many reasons they don’t implement a strategy as intended, including not understanding the strategy, not agreeing with it, not being monitored enough on the implementation, not having the right incentives and not having sufficient resources. But beyond these motivations to deviate, middle managers must have the means to do so. In our study, we interviewed 40 middle managers in 30 multinational companies about 122 strategy implementations to find the methods that they use to implement strategy in unintended ways.

Despite much research on middle managers and their role and behaviours in strategy implementation, there is still only a limited understanding of the implementation activities that result in intended and unintended strategies. We found first one set of three activities:  drawing on their long experience, drawing on their performance track record, and drawing on their boss’ trust. We’ll call them accrued characteristics. (History matters!)

Typical quotes from interviewees were:

“So, if you’re a credible, a really credible individual with a history, you are given more autonomy. If you’re an unknown and inexperienced, one would assume that you would be guided more closely.”

“We had a really good relationship and there was a large amount of trust there. I would tell him my ideas and never felt that he was making the decision. It was more a joint discussion, and then we would move forward with things.”

Another set of three activities is used by middle managers differently depending on whether they want to implement a strategy as intended or in a deviated way.

First, when they deviate from an intended strategy, they use personal autonomy more (drawing on their own judgment, flexibility and position of power). Using their personal autonomy allows them to directly implement or deviate from intended strategies without having to persuade others, including their bosses.

“Our principles: a team should have complete autonomy to listen to production and have the power, knowledge and ways and means to do that.”

“Yes, they fell to the bottom of the queue because I had autonomy to do the things that I felt were the most synergistic with what they were interested in.

Second, when implementing strategies as intended, they use cooperation more (working with their team or working with superiors). In contrast, when deviating from an intended strategy, they cooperate less across organisational levels, working less (downwards) with teams and much less (upwards) with top managers.

“The reality is, we have moved away from the command-and-control organisation, where people bark orders at people and expect everyone to do stuff, right? Even if people are reporting to you, you have to be able to influence them to stay motivated to achieve goals. Part of your responsibility as a leader is to motivate and influence people.”

Third, when deviating from intended strategies, middle managers also use coalitions more, seeking powerful allies to work around top managers’ strategic intentions. In our research, a total of 40 per cent of unintended strategies involved middle managers using internal alliances, which were less necessary when implementing strategies as intended. For unintended strategies, they also made extensive use of external alliances (66 per cent). Seeking external allies is less common when implementing strategies as intended (13 per cent).

Thus, to deviate from strategies, middle managers use coalitions beyond immediate team cooperation:

“Rather than autonomy, I am thinking of alliance, an internal alliance with people working together either formally or informally to get something done. So … one of the big things I was very keen on … was to involve the HR community.”

Our findings suggest a logical progression in how middle managers use four sequential layers of activities. First, they use their accrued characteristics (drawing on long experience, good past performance and trust by superiors) and may then use their autonomy (judgment, flexibility and power of position). Next, they can use cooperation with their immediate co-workers (both their teams and their superiors) and then, as a last resort, use coalitions (seek powerful allies and create alliances).

In conclusion, middle managers should be aware of the range of activities that they can use to execute strategy. Senior executives should also understand the methods middle managers use to implement or deviate from their intended strategies. This awareness will allow company leadership to engage with middle managers early on in the implementation process if they perceive inappropriate deviation.

Most middle managers are tasked with implementing more strategic activities than they can manage with the available time and resources. In consequence, they are often motivated to use and increase their autonomy. This may even be more the case for strategies that are hard to implement. In such cases, senior executives should help with the implementation of the intended strategy rather than deviate from it.

 


 

About the author

Annabel Christie

Annable Christie is a Lecturer in Strategy at the University of East London. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and has a PhD in Strategic Management from Cranfield University.

Esther Tippmann

Esther Tippmann is Professor of Strategy, Leadership and Change at the University of Galway in Ireland.

Posted In: LSE alumni | Management

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.