Doing more with less…or fewer?

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Written by Rob McWilliam on 16 July 2014

In the past month we’ve heard of the announcement by Morrisons, the grocery retailer, to reduce their number of employees by 1600 people. The company stated that this will be achieved, in the main, by reducing the number of middle managers in the organisation’s structure therefore finding the savings and efficiencies that they seek.

And just this past week, there was an article in The Independent newspaper, entitled Where have all the Middle Managers Gone?, in which the author, DJ Taylor, explores the reasons why managers are working more hours and why their work life is much more intense than 40 years ago. 

Taylor’s theme is echoed by the recently published survey by the Institute of Leadership And Management (ILM) who say that around two thirds of managers feel under pressure by their employer to work extra hours.

The phrase “doing more with less” has become well used across all employment sectors over recent years, given the reorganisations, restructuring, spending cuts caused by our economic circumstances.  But “less” in reality means “fewer”.  Yes, of course purse strings have been pulled in, but the job of delivering growth, results, services and care remains in the hands of the smaller number of employees who remain.  Typically, these challenges are to be implemented by the cohort of operational managers and Heads of Functions or Departments – the ‘Middle Managers’.

Middle managers have the role of translating corporate strategy into action while leading teams and developing and caring for the individuals who report to them directly or indirectly.  However, when the board run the rule over the costs in the organisation, the ‘blame’ for inefficiencies, missed targets or low employee engagement scores can fall on the mid-grades. One organisation I know of described the middle management layer as a “permafrost” – restricting the growth of the life below it while blocking out the flow of strategic intent through to the layers below!  So they introduced a restructuring plan to reduce the numbers at those grades.  Whether that board looked hard at their own performance will remain a subject for a different article on a different day!

So, given that this is happening in organisations, what can L&D professionals do to make a positive contribution to future success?  What are the learning and development needs of our middle managers in such a context?

The naïve might turn to the old favourite of time management – if you’re busy, learn to delegate or find more efficient ways of working. I’d caution against this but would use this idea more deeply. One of the teachings of classic time management is to simply stop doing activities that don’t add value. In some organisations, project teams have been set up to look at this very subject. Ironic when you think that extra activities are underway to look at reducing the number of activities! This is all well and good but how do you choose which to stop? And, more importantly, how do you convince your senior management that you have decided to stop doing some of the very activities that they used to do so well and that got them promoted? One answer – improved influencing, risk-taking and decision-making.

I believe that we, as L&D professionals, can support middle managers in how they learn to influence, how they can facilitate the implementation of new time-saving ideas and how they take the decisions that – seemingly – their senior managers want them to take.  This combines our skills of training, coaching and facilitating and could add great value. 

The only question remaining is: how might we do this if there are fewer of us?


About the author
Rob McWilliam is executive development director at Change Formation. He can be contacted via

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