Caught in the middle: Middle managers have a difficult role complying with higher management’s directives while leading and supporting your own team members. In view of this, you need to learn how to protect and strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager
The increasingly difficult role of middle managers has become more apparent in the past couple of decades. For instance, consulting professor Behnam Tabrizi from Stanford University observed empathetically::
Over the past 20 years, no group has endured greater pain and humiliation within organizations than mid-level managers…automation and the web put senior executives in touch with their own front lines — and handed many middle-level managers their pink slips. Middle-level managers who remained were labeled ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘overhead.’
I can vouch for some of the difficulties of this role from my own former experience as a public affairs/corporate affairs manager. In more than one organization, top management would pass on directions or orders, which were developed without middle managers being involved, for grumbling team members. A consolation was that in one company I became aware fairly early about high-level news because it was a public company, and so I had to prepare information for the financial media. But my own boss, general manager Barry, was also kept in the dark on important things, so he asked me to fill him in quietly when I became aware of big company news!
Later in my career, as the comms role was recognized better, I attended executive meetings and therefore kept up with relevant staff and operational issues. As a result I was much better placed to offer communication solutions, able to take initiatives, and also provide direct feedback and advice to top management on the spot. When I became a CEO, these experiences motivated me to keep my staff aware of issues.
Brad Porteus makes some insightful observations in a 2021 Medium article about the difficult role of middle managers:
The COVID-19 crisis has added great pressure on organizations, and many CEOs are trying to slash costs. Some industry observers believe that in the months and years ahead, a hollowing out of middle management may continue. “One of the big things that happened during the 2008 global financial crisis is that organizations pulled out all sorts of layers of middle management, which actually makes it harder to get promoted,” said Brian Kropp, vice president at research firm Gartner, quoted in a CNBC article in April 2020. That’s one reason wage growth was sluggish, he noted, even as the economy reached new heights: Workers were not promoted to middle-management roles as frequently, since so many were eliminated during the recession.
Some observers were optimistic the demand for good managers would rebound once the COVID pandemic subsides because organizations will want to emphasize productivity. One fear of a flattening management structure is that fewer managers will be required to oversee a higher volume of direct reports, creating room for error, lack of oversight and mismanagement. “I personally think good managers are always going to be in demand,” said Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation in the CNBC article: “You can’t have a good workforce unless you have good managers.”
During the current COVID time, effective communication with employees is crucial, and communication heads, who are usually middle managers, have gained much more respect from senior management as their work is generally understood to be central to organizational survival until they reach better times. This points to effective middle managers being even more critical to organizational performance during these times of remote work.
Nevertheless, in some organizations the changes towards remote and hybrid work, and more electronic communication from the top levels of management have reduced the role of middle managers. James Heskett, Professor of Business Logistics at the Harvard Business School, said in March 2021:
In many cases, middle managers have become less visible to those reporting to them, just one more recipient of top management messages. The notions of “chain of command” with step-wise reporting or the “cascading of ideas” down through the organization have, in some cases, been put aside.
Yet, engaging with the team, identifying and breaking down barriers encountered from higher management can’t be done properly at a distance. Managers and leaders several levels above their workers can’t easily support their teams in this way. Real leadership engages with the hearts and the hands of the team. Effective middle managers are best positioned to do this well. And this is partly how you can strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager.
Being in the middle doesn’t become a problem if there is effective formal and informal internal communication between relevant parties. Without good communication between these groups, top-to-bottom strategy, and bottom-to-top feedback, come to a screeching halt
Unfortunately, most middle managers usually have the worst of both worlds. “Employees in the middle have dual roles …They get flak from above and below,” according to researchers at Columbia University in 2015. Middle managers often have to impose strategic and administrative policies from the top – ones they weren’t asked to help develop – on the members of their team, who then may grumble and object to those new policies. This is typical of the experience found in many middle-management positions. The irony of short-term thinking in large companies is that the full costs of turnover (separation, replacement and training) can be 1.5 to 2.5 times the annual salary paid for the job, so layoff costs can be huge.according to the SHRM (US Society for Human Resource Management) in a report, Employment Downsizing and its Alternatives.
[This discussion is based on the assumption that middle managers are competent, energetic and have strategic potential if top management provided more opportunities to do and to grow.]
Another way of looking at the squeeze on middle managers is to consider the extent of their power within the organization. Middle managers have a complicated relationship with power because they are caught in between deference to more senior managers and needing to be assertive, but empathetic, with direct reports. Not conforming to these role-based expectations can lead to social conflicts and confusion. It is psychologically challenging to disengage from work requiring one mindset and engage in another activity requiring a very different mindset. For instance, people don’t easily change their mood when going from work to home and vice versa.
People who don’t have a lot of authority to make decisions but still face a lot of job demands experience higher rates of stress and even depressive symptoms. An example of the problems arising from a middle role were apparent in a 2015 US study of the mental health of 21,859 full-time workers. In this study, 18% of middle managers and supervisors reported symptoms of depression while only 12% of blue-collar workers and 11% of owners and executives reported this. That’s a 50% increase of symptoms from blue-collar workers to middle managers. When middle managers are hovering in this position, organizational activity also pauses and leaves little-to-no-room for improvement.
Many organizations have slashed middle manager numbers in the past 3 decades in a quest to reduce costs, but a significant number of leaders have come to regret this short-term thinking. It fits a pattern of poor decision-making. In fact, the biggest problem reported by middle managers is the poor leadership of their organization. A 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Why middle managers are so unhappy,” reviewed a project in which data was examined to find the most unengaged and uncommitted workers of more than 320,000 employees in a variety of organizations. The researchers then identified the employees whose engagement and commitment scores were in the bottom 5%, and they “compared the responses of these 15,729 unhappy souls to the rest.” The main factors causing their dissatisfaction were:
Image: Gallup, State of the American Manager report, 2017, p. 23.
“Considering managers have high influence on their teams – they account for at least 70% of the variance in team engagement – their own experiences with your company can affect your entire workforce,” reported Gallup’s workplace analytics team in 2018. Ray Friedman, Professor of Management at Vanderbilt University came to the same conclusion from the results of his 2015 study of the US hotel industry: “Middle managers’ treatment of employees reflects how bosses treat them,” he said The study found that when senior leaders treat managers disrespectfully, the managers follow the lead of their leaders and treat employees badly, and so performance suffers throughout the company.
Female managers likely to be affected the worst
Friedman also found that the effect is even stronger for female managers: “While the trickle-down effect is general, there may be subgroups especially influenced by the trickle-down dynamic, and we have identified women middle managers as a group that is especially affected by the trickle-down effect,” he said.
Who is your CEO??
Another insight into lack of leadership from the top is the fact that many top leaders don’t bother to visibly lead their troops. A 2017 survey, which was cited by Theodore Kinni in 2019 found that 23% of Americans working at companies with more than 500 employees were unsure of the name of their CEO. Around 32% weren’t sure they could pick their CEO out of a lineup. But everyone knows the names of their managers. To learn how to improve the communication of your organizational leaders, read my article, “7 tips for getting your top management to communicate better with employees.”
Managers are the direct leaders of employees. They supervise, coach, and appraise their team members, and seek their feedback. They play a major role in the quality of peoples’ work lives and work–life balance. They provide the opportunities to grow and advance professionally. Many managers have key knowledge about the operational front lines with employees and customers. They know far more about what employees need and what customers want than senior leaders do.
Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO of Red Hat, a major provider of open source enterprise IT products and solutions, observed presciently in the the Harvard Business Review in 2015:
The new roles that middle managers must play require different skills and capabilities than in the past. Open organizations must invest to develop these leaders. It starts with explicitly recognizing their new role. Training around soft skills. Building culture that recognizes and celebrates the right behaviors.
There has been a growing need for change in middle manager roles because many have become frustrated by unnecessary complications in corporate life. A 2021 article by the Boston Consulting Group using data from 2011 and 2017 showed how the situation has developed:
Image: Boston Consulting Group, 2021 – The End of Management as We Know It.
There is a more strategic role for middle managers than day-to-day task monitoring. These examples of a more strategic role are adapted from suggestions from Esther Derby in the HBS Working Knowledge newsletter of March 2021:
In short, this means enabling and enhancing the ability of people and teams to do valuable work. Working in this way will help middle managers to improve their career prospects.
Jim Whitehurst further believes “middle management’s job is to create communication channels that allow ideas to percolate and circulate throughout the organization.” This is a vital role, and highlights the importance of the comms function effectively initiating interaction throughout the network of middle managers.
Most middle-level management positions logically enough, usually have the term ‘manager’ in their job title. In the role of professional communication manager, people typically have job titles like Public Affairs or Corporate Affairs Manager, Communications Director, Public Relations Manager, Internal Communication Manager, Marketing Communications Manager, etc.
The daily responsibilities of a comms manager vary according to their organization’s nature, sector, structure and needs. Communication is specialized and complex, and since communication is the common factor between every position, the head of corporate communication should understand the main responsibilities across the silos of other departments as well as their own. If the internal comms team members make the effort to understand the main functions of other departments and the organizational strategic thinking – gaining in business knowledge and financial acumen – then they can play a more valuable role, particularly in response to the current pandemic. What’s more – “Recruiters place business acumen among the top 10 most important skills/competencies for internal communication professionals,” according to The Next Level report by the IC Kollectif in 2019. You can download the 14-page summary or the full 164-page global report. [Business acumen is keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a ‘business situation’ (risks and opportunities) in a way likely to lead to a good outcome,’ according to Wikipedia. ‘Business savvy’ and ‘business sense’ are often used as synonyms for the term.]
Making this effort will help to preserve their own job in tough times, but in addition, it will mean they can offer great value by making a strong contribution to stronger organizational performance.The first strategic step for you is to focus on your own functional influence. I discuss this in detail in my feature article, “How you can improve the communication skills of managers across your organization.” What’s more, this will help you strengthen your own career prospects as a middle manager.
Good communication is the basis of every healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and their manager. Consistent communication – in person, over the phone, or electronically – is connected to higher engagement, in Gallup findings in 2015. For example, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.
Engagement is highest among employees who have some form of (face-to-face, phone, or digital) daily communication with their managers, a finding of a Gallup survey. These ongoing interactions explain why engaged workers are also more likely to report their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on.
But basic daily interactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager about their roles and responsibilities, and also about what happens in their lives outside of work. The Gallup study reveals that employees who feel as though their manager cares about them are more likely to be engaged.
No organization is too large to base communication directly (face-to-face) between frontline managers/supervisors and their direct reports. TJ Larkin makes the point that:
Informal communication is the glue holding companies together. If your company was too large for effective face-to-face communication, it would have disappeared years ago. Face-to-face is the most used, most effective, most trusted, and quickest channel for moving messages in large companies [except in pandemics!].
What’s more – time has shown that having more ways to communicate doesn’t necessarily mean better communication, which was one of the conclusions from a 2018 survey for The Economist Intelligence Unit of senior executives, managers and junior staff in US companies. Also, to complicate the picture further, different generations of employees tend to use different modes of communication more often than other generations. And COVID has added further complexity to the mix.
Before you attempt to solve any organizational issues, look for communication gaps in your own team. A good way to consistently make sure you are communicating effectively with them is to ask questions:
Then you can use your own expertise to improve the communication skills of managers across your organization – regardless of how well your CEO communicates. As part of this, you can tactfully improve the communication of your CEO and middle managers simultaneously by developing a manager communication toolkit according to these steps:
You can also gain some further good ideas from my article, “How to get middle managers to communicate better.”
This type of initiative will help you to strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager, and earn promotion as a result of your work.
On a broader note, a paper by Marianne Livijn, published in 2019, discusses the role of middle managers (this would include comms heads) adding value to organizational design. Middle managers are the strategic link between macro and micro levels by converting macro-level-derived strategies into micro-level actions, especially with change management projects.
Livijn questions the need for top management to develop a comprehensive new design that applies to the entire organization, particularly in the more geographically dispersed and controlled organizations that are increasingly prevalent these days. Management of future reorganization processes could benefit from specifying which parts of the design are designed by top management and which parts should be designed at a micro level. How refreshing that would be!
Middle manager role in adapting macro design
Chart: Marianne Livijn, 2019. Navigating in a Hierarchy: How middle managers adapt macro design.
Also, she says:
Middle management’s upward influence activities have the potential to influence the organization’s strategic course by providing top management with interpretation of emerging issues by proposing new initiatives. Upward influence includes a synthesizing role in which managers interpret ambiguous data and change the strategic agenda and a championing role where managers advocate new ideas and reshape the strategic thinking of top management.
This perfectly describes the role of a strategic communication function in recognizing and dealing effectively with emerging issues. In this way, middle managers have the potential to affect the organization’s strategy processes by challenging the current mindset. This also offers a path to improve middle manager career prospects.
Senior executives can come up with a brilliant strategy, but if the people who design products, talk to customers, and oversee operations don’t foster innovation in their own realms, none of that brilliance will make a difference.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of the world’s best-known management thinkers, reports on a study of effective middle managers working in large corporations. Managers who fostered innovative, growth-oriented accomplishments shared a set of personal qualities: thoroughness, persistence, discretion, persuasiveness, and comfort with change. Perhaps surprisingly, they weren’t firebrands or rule breakers. Rather, they worked through existing networks to uncover opportunities, build coalitions, and make change happen:
Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter (right) says:
The overarching condition required for managers to produce innovative achievements is that they must envision an accomplishment beyond the scope of a job. They cannot alone possess the power to carry their idea out, but they must be able to acquire easily the necessary power. Thus, creative managers are not empowered simply by a boss or their job. On their own, they seek and find the additional strength it takes to carry out major new initiatives. They are the corporate entrepreneurs.
She mentions that innovative accomplishments would include:
According to Kanter, the middle managers in her study were not extraordinary individuals. They did, however, have a number of characteristics in common:
Kanter outlined the key achievement steps in common with the projects she studied:
So there you are – plenty to reflect on and perhaps adapt to your own situation. Following this line of action should help strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager.
A study involving a large telecommunications company found that 80% of executive-initiated projects fell short of expectations or failed outright, while 80% of middle manager–initiated projects succeeded, creating US$300 million in profits. The fact that managers are closer to the action than executives would be a major reason such projects are more successful.
In spite of all of this, middle managers are often seen and treated as expendable. When times get tough, their numbers get cut as if they were dead weight — frequently to the gratification of stockholders. Instead of releasing managers, perhaps senior leaders should be thinking about unleashing their potential. As business writer and editor Theodore Kinni (right) suggests:
Instead of dictating orders to managers, senior leaders [in large businesses] could start sharing more information with them. These days, the technologies needed to stream data to every organizational outpost are available to every company. Data dashboards can help middle managers become even more effective and nimble at their jobs by allowing them to use pertinent facts and figures for enhanced decision-making capabilities in real time. What’s missing, then? Maybe it’s the belief among senior leaders that the investment will pay off.
Senior leaders can start listening more intently to managers. Good ideas percolate in the minds of managers throughout large companies, but whether those ideas ever see the light of day depends on the quality of senior leadership. Executives who listen to managers will discover many practical, innovative ideas, as well as reliable intelligence about employees and customers.
Initiatives like this would strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager.
INSEAD professor of strategy Quy Huy (right) reported that research over the years has found middle managers make a valuable contribution to organizational change in four main ways. These contributions largely go unrecognized by most senior executives:
The reality is that most companies need effective middle managers over the long haul. Google infamously tried to eliminate their engineering managers only to learn that managers mattered — a lot. Other researchers have similarly found that middle managers can make a big difference to organizational performance. For example, in earlier research, Ethan Mollick at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a large-scale analysis of the computer game industry and determined that the behavior of middle managers accounted for 22% of the variance in revenue. The Boston Consulting Group reached a similar conclusion, calling middle managers a “neglected but critical group” after surveying thousands of employees about the drivers of success at their firms. (Again, such great potential for middle managers depends on their inherent capabilities. Some middle managers are just time servers, and employers need to assess this and move them out.)
And that’s not all: in an earlier study, when Behnam Tabrizi (right), of Stanford University, conducted a study of 56 randomly selected companies involved in major change and innovation projects in a range of industries, he said “The result was startling.” Nearly 68% of the projects failed. In the successful projects, he found middle managers were the key determinants of success, along with senior executives, serving as “levers of change, influencing those above and below them in the corporate hierarchy.” How were they successfully involved?
In the successful initiatives, middle managers were empowered in three ways. First, they were able to see how the initiatives aligned with their own personal and professional aspirations. Second, through cross-boundary and cross-functional teams, they were typically the major authors of the initiatives. Finally, they ensured the direct participation and authorship of individual contributors. In contrast, in the failing innovation/change initiatives, more than 60% of the middle managers’ time was spent in efforts devoted to sheer corporate survival. Focused on pleasing people rather than doing their jobs, they procrastinated on decisions for fear of failure, blamed others for mistakes and avoided taking risks. These middle managers were alienated and felt senior executives had used them as tactical tools.
If you are a PR or comms manager, you are probably under enormous pressure due to the COVID pandemic. Therefore, you can act progressively to help unstick your position from the frozen middle. Also, if you are not yet a manager, but consider that you have potential to take on such a role, you can reflect on the thoughts below by astute observers to review on what you can do to strengthen your career prospects.
Providing feedback in the workplace is a two-way street. As you carry out directives from upper management, keep them in the loop with outcomes and provide objective-oriented feedback. This will help you develop effective communication habits and improve performance.
Prof. Lynda Gratton (right) from the London Business School recommends making two crucial commitments to action:
Then she asks, “Are you future proofed?” A good nudge to think about your future. This will stand you in good stead to strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager.
As you learn techniques to thaw the frozen middle, review the recurring issues and miscommunications. When you move forward in your career, carry these experiences with you and continually adapt your management style. This will make you a better executive in the future.
As a middle manager, you’re the connection between executives and associates. If everyone doesn’t do their part, you’ll most likely find yourself in the frozen middle from time to time. However, understanding each issue’s stem, and communicating effectively with upper management will lead to progress. Check out JobHero visual for more ways to thaw the frozen middle and strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager.
There are some ways to ease the burden of middle management. Here are some strategic career recommendations adapted from a 2017 Harvard Business Review article by Profs Eric Anicich and Jacob Hirsch. You can reflect on ways you could adapt some of these thoughts. By successfully implementing these thoughts you will improve your career prospects as a middle manager.:
Talent expert Bill Schaninger summarizes it well in a February 2021 McKinsey article, “The Vanishing Middle Manager“:
I think middle management is part of the fabric of your leadership pipeline. These roles should be coveted and nurtured and curated, not eliminated. If you want to eliminate something, eliminate tasks—tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic and don’t add value. But keep the role and curate it to help develop your next generation of leaders.
But you need to initiate action on your own behalf to strengthen your career prospects as a middle manager. It is clear that senior management are not likely to do this on your behalf.
Top photo: Rock climber on the top of mountain island in the middle of frozen Lake Baikal, Russia, on 9 March 2020. By Julia Kuzenkova
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