The two faces of Janus, the Roman mythological god of gates, can be used to symbolize the manager in the middle of a vertically differentiated organizational structure. Much as Janus evidenced the benevolent image of a protector facing inside the gate and fierce protector facing outward, middle managers also show two different faces as they balance the roles of leader and follower. The difficulty of simultaneously filling the roles of leader and follower has received limited academic attention as most research on middle managers has focused on either leadership or followership (Baerga Cordero, 2009; Maccoby, 2009; Yukl, 2010). This minimal attention emerges as a gap in the literature when considering how the middle manager’s leader and follower roles may occur simultaneously, have conflicting expectations, and thereby may induce stress (Baerga Cordero, 2009; Paolillo, 1987; Yukl, 2010). The middle manager’s explicit and implicit challenges of maintaining these dual roles are the foci of this paper.
Foundational research by Likert (1961) characterized managers in the middle as linking- pins, conveying information both upward and downward and holding together the top and the bottom levels within an organization. House, Filley, and Gujarati (1971) and Nealey and Fiedler (1968) described managers in the middle as they performed as leaders, their role satisfaction, and the importance of their personal relationships with followers. Vertical dyad linkage theory proposed a different dyad for each leader and follower pair; it looked at both leaders’ and followers’ perspectives of one another and provided the foundation for the leader-member- exchange theory (Dansereau, 1975; Graen et al., 1977). As linking pins, middle managers participate in two dyads: one as followers with individuals in the level above them, which will be referred to as follower dyads, and as leaders, with individuals in the level below them, which will be referred to as leader dyads. Even though scholarly attention on the role of middle managers was limited during the 20th century (Nealey & Fiedler, 1968) and the first years of the 21st century (Ornstein, 2008; Vega, 2004), many fundamental concepts were established regarding middle managers’ functional importance to organizations.
After the turn of the 21st century, institutional influences created a dynamic business environment for middle managers, thereby extending their influence to include innovation, strategy, and stakeholder interaction (Curie & Procter, 2005; Delmestri, 2006; Willcocks & Griffiths, 2010). Along with these additional middle management roles came an increased responsibility to the corporate level for the success of the company and an increasing emphasis on the well-being of their subordinates (Heames & Harvey, 2006). Rather than merely acting as a linking-pin in a communications chain, the middle managers’ role in innovation and value for inspiring a skilled workforce emerged (Ornstein, 2008). As information technology improvements reduced the communications utility of middle managers, they shed their earlier switchboard role and became masters of change, adding value to the organization as transformational leaders (Carney, 2004; Frohman & Johnson, 1992; Huy, 2011; Jackson & Humble, 1994; Kanter, 2004; Spreitzer & Quinn, 1996). These changing expectations of leadership, innovation, and change management increased middle managers’ opportunities for stress from conflicting roles.
As members of a hierarchical organization, middle managers may experience many relationships with other members at senior, peer, or subordinate levels (Hsieh, Ferrer, Chen, & Chow, 2010; Ray, 2006). However, unlike other members in the same hierarchical organization, middle managers experience unique implicit, explicit, and often conflicting expectations for some of the roles they play in these dyads (Hsieh, Ferrer, Chen, & Chow, 2010; Ray, 2006; Vega, 2004). According to Yukl (2010), simultaneous middle management roles of leader and follower are not well researched and potentially conflicting.
In implicit leadership theory (ILT), subordinates’ perceptions of the differences between how their leaders are supposed to act and how they actually perform directly affect the subordinates’ responsiveness to their leaders (van Gils, van Quaquebeke, & van Knippenberg, 2010). Similarly, a fundamental of implicit followership theory (IFT) is that leaders have preconceived notions or expectations of their followers and these expectations can shape the leaders’ relative behavior and effectiveness (Sy, 2010). It appears there is symmetry in the frameworks of ILT and IFT (Shondrick & Lord, 2010). Therefore, middle managers have their own expectations of follower dyads (ILT) and leader dyads (IFT); these expectations may interact with the middle managers’ self-concepts (van Gils, van Quaquebeke, & van Knippenberg, 2010). The middle managers’ self-concepts may be the basis for their ILT and IFT – derived expectations. Therefore, how the original self-concepts may have been derived, how they influence the middle manager’s thought life, and how they enable any resultant behavior are worthy of further investigation.
When experiencing or learning about something new, the individuals’ behavior may be influenced by their prior expectations, or what Epitropaki and Martin (2005) refer to as cognitive prototypes. Cognitive prototypes or schemas are formed from individuals’ previous experiences and interactions within their social environment. Sy (2010) suggested that cognitive prototypes are the association of applicable schema to a specific category. Epitropaki and Martin suggest that cognitive (implicit) and observed (explicit) motivations constitute the framework for the formation of schemas. Everyone will have different schemas and therefore understanding how these schemas interact is important to understanding middle management behavior. Middle managers’ self-schemas and the schemas that they develop toward those in leadership and those in followership appear to be critical to understanding how they interact. How individuals use schemas in their lives is studied in schema theory and is well researched and fundamental in cognitive psychology research (Flannery & Walles, 2003; Shea & Wulf, 2005; Trong & Kim, 2010). There is a relationship between schema theory and neuroscience regarding how a schema is activated in the brain and is related to a self-concept (Žvelc, 2010). The middle managers’ self-concept may play a critical part in the chain between their sub-conscious processes, cognitive thought life, and their resultant behaviors.
Greenwald and Binaji (1995) discussed self-esteem as an example of an inward-looking schema or self-schema. Over time, these inward-looking self-schemas may induce higher levels of self-confidence and less flexibility (Žvelc, 2010). When combined with a resistance to change, increased self-confidence may prove to be significant in how middle managers choose between leadership and followership behaviors. The complex implicit and explicit expectations of middle managers may reach their pinnacle of interaction when making a decision, where conflict or dissonance must be resolved. This point may also represent a pinnacle for the associated stress, as the middle manager would then work to reduce the magnitude of cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999; Van Veen, 2009).
Cognitive dissonance induced from the process of decision-making has been extensively researched in cognitive psychology (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2003; Wilson & Keil, 2008). Festinger (1962) advanced the fundamental theory of cognitive dissonance; he offers the most prevalent of early interpretations representing the tension between two or more simultaneous schemas and the subsequent action taken to mitigate this tension (Festinger, 1962; Wilson & Keil, 2008). One fundamental observation by Festinger is that two cognitions that are related in some way are either compatible (consonant) or not compatible (dissonant) (Harmon- Jones & Mills, 1999).
Cummings and Venkatesan (1976) conjectured that if a decision was immediate, non- essential, or made under duress, then the responsibility for the decision could be transferred or rationalized as not important. Transference of responsibility may also help explain situations when the middle manager’s follower role was far more dominant and therefore led to less internal role conflict. In Milgram’s well-known and controversial experiments (Nissani, 1990, Russell & Gregory, 2010), participants administered shocks to others when directed to do so by the researcher. In each case, immediate and essential decisions were made under duress. Many of those participants transferred responsibility for their actions to the researcher, which may have mitigated their cognitive dissonance. However, considering the importance of self-concepts and accountability, it may not be sufficient to rationalize responsibility for decisions using situational constraints or the actions of others. This may be one of the reasons the self-consistency theory was a favored source of dissonance with the individuals’ guilt for their own incompetence, immorality, or irrationality (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2003).
Research by Bem and McConnell (1971) and Bem (1972) discussed self-perception theory, where the difference between observed action and intent may result in dissonance. Self- affirmation theory suggests that personal actions found inconsistent with moral self-images are sources of dissonance (Aronson, Cohen, & Nail, 1999). Self-consistency, self-perception, and self-affirmation theories are consistent with Greenwald and Binaji’s (1995) view of the importance of self-esteem as one of the fundamental building blocks of social cognition. Thus, on a cognitive level, middle managers’ intentions may be influenced by IFT and ILT – induced self-concepts and result in dissonance when their self-concepts and their actions conflict. Unconscious influences may be significant in the concept of self, where middle managers may not have a predominate schema for resolving particular conflicts (Bargh, 2011). Indeed, Shanks and Newell (2014) held that decision-making is an unconscious act. Baumeister, Vohs, and Masicampo (2014) implied that unconscious processes might influence implicit conflicts. Research also indicates that implicit conflicts are tied to an increase in stress (Baerga Cordero, 2009; Ornstein, 2008). Middle managers’ stress gives substance to their cognitive dissonance and may have unintentional consequences for organizations.
Hammett (2007) discusses how conflicting expectations of managers can result in stress because constant mental agility is required to compensate for the conflicting expectations. Tetrick (1991) recognizes that the internalized psychological meaning of multiple roles can also lead to role stress. Each manager experiences his or her roles differently, resulting in different amounts of role stress for each manager. Many studies addressing role conflict refer to dyadic relationships and how these personal relationships may interfere with organizational efficiency and effectiveness (Baerga Cordero, 2009; Baker and Gerlowski, 2007; Bernerth, Armenakis, Feild, Giles, & Walker, 2007; Vega, 2004). Enduring these relationships and role stresses may reduce the middle manager’s long-term effectiveness and retention (Baerga Cordero, 2009; Delmestri, 2006; Ornstein, 2008). Furthermore, a contrast between resultant actions and schemas could be an important source of stress if leadership and followership actions are found not to be consistent with their simultaneous leadership and followership self-schemas (Rico, 1965).
Within any hierarchical organizational structure, the behavioral relationships of middle management relate as much to the internal or cognitive environment of the manager as to the external or explicit environment of the manager. From cognitive psychology literature, the middle managers’ implicit and explicit challenges reveal several concepts where simultaneous leader and follower roles may be in conflict. Schemas of middle managers formed subconsciously through their experiences and perceptions can manifest conscious and possibly even unconscious dissonance, which in some cases can be mitigated. From a social cognition perspective, the relative importance of these middle management schemas and roles appear to have direct relationships with their concepts of self and subsequent relationships with others in an organization. Roles, as they are introduced explicitly, are also interpreted implicitly and where there are inconsistencies there is stress. While cognition psychology and neuroscience continue to probe the cognitive boundaries of decision-making, further qualitative investigation into the middle managers’ sense-making by exploring their lived experiences may help reveal what it is like to be simultaneously a leader and follower.
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