Our middle managers have it tough.

Sandwiched between senior management (SM) and frontline workers (FL), they carry the “Business As Usual” responsibility, trying to get done the daily tasks of the organization, against the constant obstacles of unreasonable customers, clunky systems, supply failures, worker non-performance, breakdowns and snafus.   “It can feel like purgatory” says one.

Researchers have recently begun examining the plight of the MM and find:

  • “Management gurus have erred in bashing MM; social scientists have erred in dismissing them as victimized drones”; Ivey School
  • Middle Managers (MM) are seen negatively from above and below as being an overhead to be shed or shrunk; politicians, journalists and society echo this view
  • Cuts lead to flatter organizations and unmanageable spans
  • There is less solidarity and social support for and among MM than FL
  • Training tends to be allocated to senior management or to recruits; communication, planning, instruction, delegation and team-building skills are not inherent but must be taught
  • Promotion from MM to SM is less common – the career pathway is fractured
  • Rapid change driven by technology and disruption destabilizes all routines, workflows and job methods
  • With unifying policies, systems and controls, MM have reduced decision-making authority and minimized autonomy; an MM is as likely to be judged on process as on outcomes
  • However, the expectation that an MM will use initiative to problem-solve remains high
  • MM are 50% more likely than either SM or FL to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

Despite this overwhelming bad rap and situation, MM remain valuable.

  • “Middle management should be valued for what they contribute and be seen as a resource to be developed”
  • MM usually have commitment, affection and deep technical knowledge for the trade and its products; often industry lifers, they care
  • MM are key to organizational change; SM cannot lead a culture change without active MM advocacy
  • Self-managing FL is a fantasy
  • MM can leverage informal networks in companies and can sustain momentum
  • MM restore orderly flow by conquering chaos and eliminating barriers
  • MM adjust constantly, switching and fine tuning resource allocation
  • MM mediate between customers and the firm, and between teams within the organization
  • MM Get Things Done

Ivey School identifies a totally understandable mindset. “Middle managers are well aware that their circumstances have shifted and that their hold on their jobs is more tenuous than in the past. They are much more skeptical of top management than they were before, and in some respects are alienated from their organizations. But they are committed to the work and gain considerable satisfaction from it”.

Readers in loftier governance and top management roles might make an especial thank you and Christmas acknowledgment to your middle managers and their families. As always, they have had a tough year.