Many executives we work with are frustrated in their efforts to improve the innovation of their companies. One of the problems? Middle management gets in the way of innovative employees by clinging to dominant leader styles.

Our experience and the lessons of empirical research shows that middle management can be the key to a company unlocking the innovation of their workers.[i]

What are the qualities of middle managers who drive innovation?

  1. They align their teams to the company’s purpose, values, and business strategies and stress the team’s importance for the company’s success.
  2. They are transparent. They provide constant clarity on the team’s goals, milestones, resources, and operating norms, and the individual’s roles and responsibilities on the team. They continually provide the team with new competitive information the company is receiving.
  3. They inspire their teams to achieve challenging goals and provide ongoing development and performance feedback.
  4. Their team meetings are marked by equal participation, empathy, open communications, and moving forward. Dominance and dithering are not allowed.
  5. They are technically competent in their field and will train and coach novices (or find coaches who are better than themselves for specific skills). They quickly address performance issues, but they do not micro-manage.
  6. They never miss an opportunity to recognize participation and success.
  7. Above all, they create an environment of trust because innovation cannot occur without risk-taking, failure, and learning. Team members will not take risks in highly critical and political environments. Team members need to know that their team and their managers have their backs.

How do executives coax their team leaders to adopt more collaborative and empowering leadership styles?

First, I tell executives to set this expectation with their team leaders and recognize the team leaders who adopt these behaviors and get results.

Second, I suggest they look at the company’s formal and informal performance management system. What behaviors and outcomes does it reward? Does the company recognize compliance and obedience over everything else? (If they only do this, they have a problem!)

Frankly, companies need to be bipolar: compliant and focused on delivering this quarter’s commitments while also able to unleash employee innovation that aligns with the company’s strategies. Companies need to have compliance with their ongoing operations to assure that customers receive reliable products and services and deliver on commitments to investors. Meeting obligations can take 70 to 90 percent of the time of employees and is demanding. This does not get in the way of innovation.

What gets in the way of innovation is when the drive for compliance, corporate politics, and the leaning out of processes leaves no room for anything else. Innovative companies question, learn, consider new technologies and weigh social trends. Middle managers who drive innovation allow employees to question, suggest new ideas, fail and learn.

Executives who want to change the behaviors of their managers first need to set this expectation and then make sure their informal and formal performance management systems reward the behaviors that allow for innovation. These executives will be rewarded with higher profitable growth.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides hands-on support to improve recruiting and retention, cultures of innovation, and train agile leaders and teams

[i] There are several studies through the decades that have clearly demonstrated the importance of collaborative and empowering managers and a link to organizational performance and innovation. The include the following: Susan Albers Mohrman, Susan G. Cohen, and Allan M. Mohrman, Jr., Designing Team-Based Organizations: New Forms for Knowledge Work, 1995, Jossey-Bass, Inc. San Francisco, CA; John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance, 1992, The Free Press, New York. And David A. Garvin (December 2013), “How Google Sold its Engineers on Management,” Harvard Business Review. Found at; And Victor Assad ( Feb. 13, 2018) “Four studies identify the critical dynamics that contribute to team success,”