16. June 2020

Why is the lettuce so important in a burger? – A management metaphor

By Riccardo Giacometti

“The lettuce (team leader) acts like a parchment paper between the — hopefully — juicy meat patties (management) to not let the bottom bun (team) get soggy while at the same time providing crunchy freshness. The unsung hero of a good burger!” – Klaus

The executives in the “lettuce” position use the example of a burger.

They receive and give instructions, filter information, and pass it on to all levels. They must lead, motivate, and also shine with professional competence. A leadership position in middle management is virtually an all-round job with a lot of responsibilities and even more potential for frustration. “Actually, the lettuce acts as a barrier that protects your bun from absorbing all the juices of the burger and tomato.” – Isaac These managers can be, as you look at it, the department heads or the general managers. Everybody has someone above them who is in charge.

As an executive, a department head, or a team leader, these people are the backbone of every company. The managers “in the middle” — the lettuce leaves in our burger — are responsible for turning strategy into daily business because they are the link between the top management and operational teams. And the lettuce leaf is often between the fronts (bun and dripping patty). They have to defend their position both against the management (this can be the GM from the perspective of the department heads; and from the GM’s point of view, it can be the management of the company) and against the employees who report to them — a sometimes exhausting role that results in conflicts between a “leader” and “follower.” However, “the lettuce is able to keep your hamburger bun (the team) dry rather than a soggy mess you sometimes get if the juices from the burger’s patty (management of the company) drip down.” – Lavendra

Invisible top performers

The immense range of tasks of the “lettuce managers,” which simultaneously includes professional, management, and leadership tasks. The required professional competence hardly worries the managers, as they were often promoted because of it. But many of them see themselves confronted with the problems of personnel management or management functions for the first time in their new position. They have to fill more roles than they would like and must do so while aligning with their own values:

  • The role of a motivating but assertive manager who represents the interests of the employees upward and those of top management downward.
  • The role of a loyal representative of the company toward customers and business partners.
  • The expert role in which they have to demonstrate their professional competence.
  • The role of a manager who plans, organizes, coordinates, and gives important input to the top management, implements guidelines, and further develops the organization in terms of corporate managemen

High expectations and little recognition

On the part of the top management, however, these all-rounders are usually not appreciated. Instead of actively supporting and promoting them, “lettuce managers” are left to their own devices. After all, you can expect a high degree of independent, solution-oriented behaviors from every manager (micromanagers naturally have a different attitude toward this, but this is mainly because they are afraid that their position will be undermined). While the management likes to adorn themselves with successes from individual departments or hotels, the actual top performers remain in the background. Failures and lack of performance, on the other hand, are quickly attributed to middle management. There are high expectations with too little recognition, and this obviously reduces motivation in the long run. But it is equally obvious that the success of a company depends very much on a strong middle management team.

Recommendations for action by the management team

Provide comprehensive information

Middle management must be informed transparently and regularly in a structured way about operational and strategic corporate goals. Sensitive issues, such as the closure of business units, outsourcing, and planned company expansions, must not be ignored. By doing so, middle management can contribute to a good corporate result and steer activities in the right direction on their own.

Cultivating a feedback culture

Top management should promote a culture that enables middle management to criticize superiors on a fact-based approach and vice versa. An open and honest interaction on a factual level is essential for good cooperation. Regular bilateral meetings can be a platform for important updates and encourage open dialogue and the exchange of feedback from both sides.

Allow others to participate in shaping the future

Middle management has considerably more detailed information and knowledge about work processes and work procedures, employee potential, and market development than the top management. It would be negligent not to leverage this. For this very reason, the management should not only pass on top-down decisions to middle management. Rather, they should also include them in key decision-making processes.

Provide a clear framework and sufficient freedom

It is precisely the variety of different duties and functions that a middle management executive has that call for a clear mission statement. Responsibilities, expectations with regard to measurable and bonus-relevant goals, and guidelines for action should be agreed and recorded together. Within these clearly defined framework conditions, however, it is important to give middle management the freedom to shape their own decisions.

Recognize and support

It is important that the top management openly recognizes and rewards the performance of middle managers. In addition to monetary incentives, an unrestricted commitment is especially, in times of crisis, a great motivator that binds the top performers to the company. Managers at a mid-organizational level can be offered effective support with further training in the areas of employee leadership, self and employee management, or conflict management.