The inherent challenge of being a middle manager

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, even though I am not a middle manager — I manage a couple of freelancers here and there and some processes, sure, but I wouldn’t even classify myself as “a manager” in the grand scheme of things, really. I think I’ve developed a theory that I’m sure others have had before me, but maybe I can get it to catch on with 2-3 people here and there. (Every journey begins with a small step.)

We know this, to start: most managers aren’t really considered to be good managers, per se.

But think about this at a more contextual level:

  • If you’re a senior manager, you have commitments, of course — to the absolute top people — but you also have a degree of financial assuredness and semi-security in your role; plus, you’re closer to the power center, which can be both good and bad (relative to where you work, of course).
  • Also, if you’re a senior manager, it can be easier to check out for periods of time and not have anyone question you.
  • If you’re near the bottom of an org or newer, you’re more just a foot soldier, honestly. People don’t love to admit this, but it’s true.

Now take it another step:

  • Senior managers, at least at for-profit, revenue-generating companies, tend to need to focus on quarterly needs, revenue, profit, leads, money, etc.
  • People near the bottom of an org — the foot soldiers — typically only get real info about those elements once or twice a year, so they (especially the current young crop) can focus a bit more on issues like employee engagement.

Now, to the middle:

  • If you’re a middle manager, by definition, you’re faced with two challenges unique to only you: you need to manage down (which involves proper communication of goals and how to meet them, as well as being a good, empathetic manager) and you need to manage up (which involves more in terms of discussing revenue and finances).
  • When I say this, I’m not saying that only middle managers have to manage up and down — everyone does, to an extent — but it’s a rare situation where managing down looks very different than managing up.

Thus, middle managers are caught between two mistresses of the work world. Look, there are other challenges — meetings, e-mail volume, communication approaches, the hiring process, business models and faulty leadership — but this seems like a fairly tangible one, no?

Now I keep humming this thing:

Do you think middle managers have it tougher than senior managers or foot soldiers in terms of the different priorities they have to manage? 

Ted Bauer

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