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115 SEPTEMBER 2008
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The role of the middle manager in residential programs

Adje van de Sande

This paper examines the potential difficulties inherent in the position of middle manager in following an agency’s policies and procedures and, in cases where the agency is unionized, a complex labor agreement as well. Drawing heavily from management literature and the author’s experiences, suggestions are made to help individuals in this role cope with these difficulties and become more effective managers.

Middle managers in residential child care have a vital and increasingly difficult role to play in residential care.1 In managing staff teams, they must deal with two very strong, and often conflicting influences, represented by (a) the personnel policies and procedures of the agency and (b) the front-line staff. In recent years, the problems facing the middle manager have become further complicated by the movement toward unionization.

Personnel policies and procedures
The residential centre, like any organization that employs people, needs personnel policies that are clear, fair and relevant to the goals of the centre. Confusion breeds mistrust, and if the personnel policies are not clear, or they are not fairly implemented, the employees will be looking for protection against the organization.

The upper management should not fool themselves into believing that they are the only ones who know “what’s best for the kids”. Robert Merton has talked about “trained incapacity” where a bureaucracy has become so inflexible that it puts the needs of the bureaucracy ahead of the needs of the individual. Quite often, what makes sense at the top can actually be detrimental to the individual needs of staff and clients alike. This danger is minimized if a centre is prepared to involve the middle managers as well as the front-line workers in the development of these policies.

Reviewing the management literature of the last two decades, much has been written on the concept of participative management. In 1967, Rensis Likert developed a model for management based on this approach. He described four different systems of management with the first three being variations of authoritative management and the last one, “system IV” being participative management. In terms of productivity and employee morale, Likert demonstrates that the “system IV” approach is, by far, the most effective.

In the larger residential centres, many of the personnel policies are administered by the middle management, often called program co-ordinators or unit supervisors. Having two levels of management involved, one level writing the policies and the other level administering them, can create problems. Shannon and Weaver (1949) have described how messages can be altered by each level in the hierarchy. Good policies which are misunderstood or administered unfairly by the managers can be a source of conflict between front-line and management. This also suggests that the organization should keep its hierarchy as flat as possible. The more levels of management, the more there is the potential for confusion and conflict.

The effects of unionization on residential programs
In addition to implementing personnel policies and procedures, middle managers today often are responsible for supervising staff who are unionized. They would therefore be expected to follow a contract or a collective agreement that is often very complex. In recent years, more and more residential centres have become unionized. Most of the cases are a direct result of poor labor relations within the organization. Unfortunately, with budget cuts and the need for large scale program changes, even centres that normally had good labor relations can experience temporary labor unrest resulting in unionization.

What are the effects of unionization on the programs? Certainly, for management it means that a new influence has been introduced which must be dealt with. For the clients, it represents a potential source of conflict between the adults looking after them. In order to justify its continued existence, the union plays an adversarial role. As a result, it often maintains an atmosphere of conflict between management and the front-line. Blake and Mouton (1981) have identified two different types of groups in the work force; the primary group, which would normally include a supervisor and the team, and a reference group which includes members who are associated but not necessarily working together. A union is an example of a reference group, and its influence can be stronger than that of the primary group. It would certainly be in the union's interest to keep this influence very strong.

During a negotiation process, which may or may not involve strike action, relationships between supervisors and their teams can become strained and the influences of the primary group and the reference group may be in direct opposition. Supervisors and their child care workers who have had close working relationships may find the labor conflict interfering with their relationship. Some of the child care staff may actively support the union's position, while other child care workers support their supervisors. As a result, team cohesion breaks down.

Unions, like management, have their own hierarchy. On the front line, each team may have its own shop steward who is appointed either by the team or by the union. His or her task is essentially to see that the terms of the contract or collective agreement are being followed. They are also expected to encourage members of the team to turn to him when conflicts come up. The potential exists for this person to be a direct challenge to the leadership of the unit supervisor. If a conflict does arise which cannot be resolved within the team, it may result in a grievance and be passed along to the grievance officer or another member of the union executive. Frequently, when this happens the problem and the negotiated solution will be dealt with at a level that is removed from the front line. In large centres with large union locals, the solution that is agreed to may not be completely relevant to the team that had the conflict in the first place. Obviously, it would be better if the team found a way of resolving its own conflict.

Unions frequently discourage child care staff from regularly doing more than what is being asked of them. They would argue that it makes their fellow workers look less committed. As a result, individual initiative and commitment may be impeded. Management may also inadvertently reinforce the union's influence on its members. If management avoids working with the union but instead constantly looks for ways of blocking its efforts, the front line workers would likely perceive this as management being insensitive to their needs. This is a common problem in industry. Blake and Mouton (1981), in attempting to come to grips with this issue, have described a process by which poor management attitude can be effectively improved. Four steps are identified in this process:

  1. Identification of the problem;
  2. Norm shifting discussion;
  3. Consolidation of the new norm and
  4. Implementation and follow-up.

Although there are no simple solutions to these issues, it does appear that this type of approach can lead to a healthier labor climate.

Unionization, good or bad, has become a reality in our field. Both managers and front-line workers must develop an awareness of the potential problems that the situation can create and demonstrate a willingness not to let disagreements over labor issues interfere with their common commitment to the clients under their care.

The middle manager
Frequently, the middle manager is recruited from the frontline and is expected to be a manager with little or no training in management techniques. He or she may have been promoted because of a demonstrated competency and professionalism in child care. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this individual is capable of managing people.

What makes the middle manager different from a front-line worker is his ability to delegate. Frederick Taylor (1911) was the first to describe this aspect of management in what he calls “functional foremanship”. For the new program co-ordinator, this is often a difficult adjustment to make, and it involves shifting the focus of attention from the client to the staff. If this individual was a capable child care worker, he or she may find it very frustrating to delegate to people that are perceived as being less capable. The temptation to do the work himself or herself may be very strong. Nevertheless, the new task is to help others do the work and, unless the new supervisor makes this adjustment, serious conflicts will develop.

The middle manager must also learn that a wide range of management techniques will be needed, depending on the situation and the people involved. The need for a range of techniques is widely recognized in the field of management. Tannenbaum and Schmidt (1973) describe a continuum from “boss-centered” to “subordinate-centered” leadership. The manager must look at three different types of factors; the forces on the manager, the forces on the subordinate and the forces in the situation itself, before choosing an approach. In a time of crisis in the unit, the team will need a supervisor who is very direct, even authoritarian. On the other hand, when everything is functioning smoothly and the staff is performing well, being authoritarian could be detrimental.

Different levels of competency and experience among the staff will also require a different management approach. New inexperienced child care workers need a lot of direction from their front-line supervisors. Experienced, competent child care workers demand a high level of autonomy. Here again the middle manager must use good judgment in determining the most effective approach.

A residential program will only be successful if its staff team is functioning as a cohesive, productive unit. To achieve this, the supervisor should use a participative management approach and involve the team in decisions affecting the program. Each individual team member must be made to feel that his or her input counts and that he or she can take part of the credit for the success of the program. If the front-line people are not involved, they will not be committed and may go elsewhere for support.

Developing and maintaining a commitment on the part of the staff team as a group is an on-going concern for the middle manager. Here again, much can be found in management litera ture on the importance of building a strong team. Team retreats, team meetings, individual supervision, performance evaluation and the use of a neutral authority, if approached in the right way, are opportunities for the middle manager to obtain the maximum commitment from each member of his or her team.

Team retreats: An effective way of creating a productive, cohesive team is through staff retreats. Once or twice a year, the staff team should get together for one or two days, away from the usual place of work, to conduct a thorough review of their program. Mandates and philosophies should be explored, routines modified, and new goals and objectives developed. In the process of carrying out these tasks, group cohesion is usually strengthened.

Team meetings: The weekly team meetings also provide regular opportunities for the supervisor to reinforce the team’s commitment. Again, using participative management, there should be maximum involvement from each member in the discussion. The resulting decisions should be carefully recorded, specifying the tasks assigned to each individual team member.

Individual supervision: Middle managers should approach individual supervision with the idea that the child care worker is interested in developing as a professional. Even in private industry where the profit motive is all important, Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs has been widely accepted. Maslow stated that man have five levels of needs:

  1. physiological needs “thirst, hunger, sex and sleep;
  2. safety needs “job security, order and protection against danger;
  3. love needs “identification, love and group interaction;
  4. ego and esteem needs “self respect, success and status;
  5. self-actualization needs “realization of one’s full potential, continued self-development and use of creative abilities.

As each level is satisfied, the next level becomes the main motivation in his life.

It was this concept that inspired Peter Drucker to develop the widely used MBO (Management by Objectives) approach in management. Drucker (1954) believed that if each employee is able to participate in the development of the objectives of the organization, he or she will have a personal investment in seeing that these objectives are met.2 Extensive research was done by Frederick Herzberg et al. (1968) on factors that motivate employees. He discovered that company policy and administration, supervision, relationship with peers, personal life, relationship with subordinates, status and security would act as a source of irritation and dissatisfaction if they are inadequate. These, he called “hygiene factors”. Achievement, recognition, work itself, responsibility, advancement and growth provided employees on the other hand with real job satisfaction. These, he called “motivators”. The middle manager must recognize that the hygiene factors are adequate and find a way of including the motivators in each employee’s job.

The evaluation: The supervision process should result in a formal evaluation or performance appraisal. The evaluation provides both parties with an opportunity to review which goals were achieved, which were not, and what new goals will be developed. It is important to stress that there should be no surprises in the evaluation. If it was not previously discussed in supervision, it does not belong in the evaluation.

A neutral authority: The program plan developed at staff retreats, the minutes of team meetings, the notes of the supervision sessions and even the contract or collective agreement become a neutral authority to which the child care workers and the supervisor become accountable. These agreements form the rules or norms by which the team will regulate its activities. They are part of the group culture in which each individual member will be encouraged to grow and develop as an individual and as a professional child care worker. Once these norms have been established by the team, unionization should no longer be a factor in the productivity of the team. It will become self-regulating and self-motivating both in working toward its own goals and the goals of the organization.

The middle manager plays a vital role in residential centres. In following the agency’s policies and procedures, he or she must see that the front line is implementing what will help the agency meet its objectives. This often requires working within a complex labor agreement and with a union hierarchy.

Middle managers must be prepared to carry out this assignment. They must learn to delegate. Flexibility will be needed because different work situations will require different management approaches. Team retreats, team meetings and individual supervision must be used in such a way so as to maximize the involvement of each member of the team. They must create a culture where the individual and the team can continue to grow.


1. In writing this paper, the author has drawn from management literature as well as his experience as a front-line child care worker, and as a middle and senior manager both in unionized and non-unionized residential centres for children.

2. For a description on how M.B.O. can be applied to a residential centre on an agency-wide basis, see Peter C. McMahon, Management by Objectives in the Social Services, Ottawa, Canadian Association of Social Workers, 1981.


Blake, Robert R. and Mouton, Jan S. (1981). Productivity, the Human Side. New York. AMACOM.

Drucker, Peter. (1954). The Practice of Management. New York. Harper and Row.

Herzberg, Frederick. (1968). One more time: How do you motivate employees? Harvard Business Review, January-February.pp. 53-62.

Likert, Rensis. (1967). The Human Organization. New York. McGraw Hill. pp. 14-24.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York. Harper.

Merton, Robert. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York. Free Press.

Shannon, D. C. and Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana. University of Illinois.

This feature: Van de Sande, Adje. (1983). The role of the middle manager in residential programs. Journal of Child Care, 1, 4. pp. 47-52.

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