Are middle managers the secret sauce to cultural change at news companies?

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


We’ve spent a lot of time talking about cultural change in the Newsroom Transformation Initiative and the need for top leaders to set the right tone, be transparent, and measure results. 

All of that is true, of course, but another important component that gets less attention: the role of middle managers in enacting change.  

I recently came across this New York Times piece titled, “The Quiet Magic of Middle Managers.” And while it’s not about cultural change, it does touch on how “these managers are the frontline workers who try to resolve tensions and keep communities working, their teams united, and relationships afloat.”

It got me thinking about middle managers and how they are the important link between upper management and frontline journalists. A journalist deals with their direct supervisor far more often than the top editor; if the middle manager isn’t bought into the cultural change, it won’t be successful. 

C-suite leaders should focus on middle managers for the day-to-day culture of news companies.
C-suite leaders should focus on middle managers for the day-to-day culture of news companies.

That led me to some interesting articles on the topic:

  • In How Your Middle Managers Can Make or Break Your Culture, by Odgers Berndtson in Washington, D.C., the author writes: “In most organisations, the c-suite takes the lead in establishing a vision for the company’s culture. However, in order for that vision to be realised, it needs to be operationalised in practical ways across the enterprise, at all levels. That is where middle managers play a significant role. Whether or not they realise it on a conscious level, middle managers are vital to turning the concept of culture and values into action. Since they arguably have the greatest number of interactions with the largest number of people in the organisation, they make a substantial impact on how your culture comes to life every day.”

  • Middle Management: The Crucial Architects of Workplace Culture, by Alpha Consulting Group KK, notes: “Historically, middle managers were seen as mere conduits for executive mandates. Today, they are the linchpins that hold the organisational fabric together. Their role has evolved from policy enforcers to culture cultivators, especially in an era where remote and hybrid work models could fray the threads of company unity.”

  • And this piece on the World Economic Forum, To fix workplace culture, fix middle management. Here’s how, said: “The most logical role for middle management is to serve as the vital cog in the alignment of strategy and people — better known as culture. Traditionally, executives set the long-term vision while rank-and-files execute on it. The connection point between the long-term plan and the day-to-day plan can be middle management, where culture is shaped.”

There’s more, but the point is the same in each: Cultural change can succeed or fail on the basis of your middle managers. So what do we need to do to ensure that layer of management is helping us succeed? 

My takes:

  • Involve them. If you tend to have meetings that include upper management but not middle managers, widen the circle. Bring them into the decision-making process.

  • Set the tone. Equip middle managers with the information they need to communicate about cultural changes. Make sure they don’t feel as though they can’t explain changes because they weren’t part of them.

  • Check in. Middle managers are the only ones in your organisation that must manage up and manage down at the same time. Make sure you are accessible and available to answer questions, quell concerns, and hear feedback.

  • Hold people accountable. If you have a middle manager who is resistant or working against your goals, address it head on with performance management. Working at cross-purposes is detrimental to the entire company.

  • Recognise the advocates. Make sure to provide positive reinforcement and celebrate your managers who are bought in and helping to further the company’s goals.

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About Amalie Nash

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