It's time to remember the value that middle managers bring

Middle manager
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Everybody knows that middle managers are petty bureaucrats and costly overheads. Worst of all, they block innovation and change. Nobody wants this role. I meet middle managers who give themselves other job titles when they are asked at social gatherings what they do for a living.

There is no evidence to support this stereotype.

The key role of 'strategic middle managers'

Studies in public and private sector organisations paint a radically different picture. Research finds ‘strategic middle managers’ with increasingly varied responsibilities, with long hours and rising performance expectations, playing key roles in operational and human resource management, mediating between front line and top team, helping to shape as well as to deliver strategy.

Middle managers are often the ‘ideas people’, developing creative improvements ‘below the radar’, and helping others to put good ideas into action.

And don’t forget that it’s middle managers who are responsible for keeping the show on the road. Middle managers do block change - when they know that it’s a bad idea, and that they will get the blame when it fails because they were responsible for implementation.

Studies show middle managers sabotaging top-down directives in order to put something better in place.

The dawn of 'extreme' middle managers

Austerity and cost-cutting, ‘lean’ methods, flatter structures, and the pace of change have created ‘extreme’ middle management jobs. This phenomenon was first discovered among high-flying (US) professionals in international finance, oil exploration, large-scale manufacturing, entertainment and media, law, accounting, consulting, and medicine.

The features of extreme jobs include:

  • unpredictable work patterns
  • long hours (60+ a week)
  • tight deadlines
  • constant time pressures
  • having to do more with fewer resources.

We found these job characteristics among (less well paid) middle managers in UK hospitals, whose roles are made even more extreme by the need to make life-or-death decisions.

Other studies have shown that middle managers in other sectors have similar experiences.

Extreme jobs are common

But is this a problem? The ‘adrenaline rush’ from work that is varied, intense, and fast-paced can be challenging and rewarding. Remove the responsibility and the pressure, and you take away the fun and the motivation. However, extreme jobs can also lead to stress, fatigue, and burnout, and can damage work-life balance.

Can we have middle management roles that are ‘positively extreme’, sustaining the excitement but reducing the strain?

The managers in our study often had no secretarial or administrative assistance, support staff were mostly part-time, and their services were likely to be shared by several managers. The lack of up-to-date IT facilities (also often shared) can add to the burden.

Those high-flying professional ‘extreme jobbers’ typically have access to concierge services which free up their time.

But the costs of providing these basic support services could be prohibitive for most organizations.

What support do middle managers need?

When middle managers are asked what support would help them to work more effectively, they list the following: good two-way communications with the top team, timely business information, streamlined decision-making, information-sharing not constrained by ‘silos’, teamwork, and adequate resources.

'Let me manage'

One popular request is, ‘Let me manage’, with the autonomy to innovate and to take risks without constant senior management interference. The evidence shows that managers with loosely-defined roles are more innovative than those who are constrained by rigid job descriptions.

Is this idea of creating an ‘enabling environment’ for middle managers just common sense?

Well, it seems to make sense, but the research suggests that it is not common. Why would any organization not adopt this approach to utilizing their middle management assets more effectively? Most of the steps required to build and to sustain an enabling environment involve changes in leadership and management style, which are free.

Want to discuss these issues with David? He can be reached on [email protected].

About David Buchanan


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02nd Jun 2015 11:24

It's nice to see that 'the permafrost of middle management' as I once heard them described is getting a better press.

But really, what middle management require - two way communication with the top team, timely business information, streamlined decision making, no silos, teamwork and adequate resources - isn't that what ALL organisational members need?

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03rd Jun 2015 09:49

In an ideal world, and in ideal circumstances, Karen, yes, for sure. But in large organizations (NHS has over a million employees, large hospital has 15,000) arranging for all staff to work under those conditions is a challenge. I think that, given the importance of the role, it is particularly important that middle managers have those 'enabling' factors which, to implement, costs little or nothing.

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