What Is the Role of Middle Managers in Company Culture?


The importance of a positive company culture in driving productivity and employee satisfaction has been demonstrated many times over. However, companies do not always think about company culture as something that everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining.

Looking to the Middle

Most people think company culture is only the responsibility of the executive leadership team. After all, their decisions and actions set the tone for the entire organization.

Executives obviously play an important role in defining culture. However, culture goes beyond the C-suite. Many elements of culture are organic; they arise naturally from the way people throughout the organization interact and work together. In this way, employees are drivers of culture. Executives may be responsible for the company’s mission, vision, standards, and formal norms and policies, but they cannot dictate everything—nor should they! Some norms develop over time.    

Another key stakeholder in culture that is often overlooked are middle managers. These people have the most direct impact on a broad swath of employees, so they have an incredible impact on culture. Middle managers help engage employees with the company’s culture and carry out strategies developed by executives.

In addition, middle managers are often responsible for hiring new, junior employees, so they may control, in large part, who is admitted to the organization and who isn’t. They are also involved in onboarding, an important way that new employees learn about culture.

The term middle manager is broad; it covers people who head specific departments, programs, and projects. These individuals largely have the most influence on the daily experience of many employees—so they can quickly create a toxic environment or a positive one. They may also be more willing and able to speak out when they see a problem in the culture.

Unfortunately, many companies do not respect the opinions of middle managers when it comes to developing culture. Their ideas may be overlooked, even though they often have important input and feedback. If executives have a 10,000-foot view of culture, middle managers are the ones actually on the ground, watching policies and programs play out.

Middle managers likely have the strongest idea of what has and has not been helpful in the past for their employees in terms of policies around culture. They know what works and what doesn’t. Failing to engage middle managers or ignoring their input can be a recipe for disaster if you’re trying to shift the culture within your organization.

The Value of Middle Managers in Changing Culture

For a real-world example of the incredible influence of middle managers on culture, Harvard Business Review pointed to a case study of a major oil producer that was published in Organization Science. The paper looked at an initiative to change corporate culture that received a significant amount of resistance from employees who had been with the company for a long time. This is never surprising, of course—culture can become ingrained and changing it is easier said than done. However, one unit successfully shifted its culture in a meaningful way, thanks to the efforts of middle managers.

Because middle managers understood the viewpoints of their team, they were able to implement effective policies that produced the changes the executives were trying to achieve. For example, the management team penalized certain actions that were no longer in line with cultural expectations, while promoting others. The middle managers also helped develop and enforce metrics in support of the new culture. With these efforts, middle managers got traction, while the executive team was less successful implementing the culture change across the organization as a whole. These results underscore how these managers can be one of the most critical components in efforts to change culture.

The Role of Middle Managers in Culture Creation

Executives should understand the role that middle managers can play in developing culture. These managers can often see the gaps between the desired culture and the actual culture, and can have great suggestions about how to change the environment or implement new tools to achieve goals.

It’s also important to include middle managers on cultural initiatives because they’ll be more likely to buy in to changes if they are able to contribute to them—and because they affect so many employees’ daily experience at work, their buy-in is important.  What’s more, implementing cultural changes can look different in different departments, so it is important to understand the viewpoint of middle managers and respect their autonomy in managing their employees.

Ultimately, creating company culture is a shared responsibility among everyone at an organization. Executives have an important role in creating the mission, vision, and values of the company, and in deciding to take action on culture. Employees, on the other hand, create culture organically. But it’s important not to neglect middle managers, who have an excellent view of the employee experience and power to influence this.