The death of middle management

Middle management

I’ve long been fascinated by middle management — and immensely critical of how most people perform at that level. Here’s the thing, though: middle management, much like the middle class itself, may be dying. Let’s walk through a little bit of why.

Middle Management: How it came about and core functionalities

If we’re being logical, companies can’t really operate on a Bell Curve with just executives and rank-and-files. Executives probably would get tired of speaking to the rank-and-files — and wouldn’t want to spend their whole day giving instructions on projects to them, either. The problem, of course, is that executives currently spend a lot of their day giving instructions to rank-and-files anyway. Let’s gloss that over for now.

Middle management came about as a way to bridge this gap and make sure that information and projects were flowing from the execution level (rank-and-files) to the big dogs (executives) and money was being made all along the process curve. Over time, ‘middle management’ took on kind of a joke designation because so many middle managers were bad at their jobs. By some measure, 82 percent of managerial hires end up being the wrong one. Go talk to your CEO if you can get some time with him. Tell him that an aspect of his business has an 82 percent failure rate. He’ll dive through a plate glass window then immediately call a “strategic all-hands” for Monday. And yet, it probably does. That’s middle management. It’s usually not very effective.

Now look: there are a lot of challenges to being a middle manager, for sure. I wrote about a few once before. One of the biggest challenges in middle management is that you’re the only people in a company who have to manage both up (to execs) and down (to your direct reports). Execs don’t manage up, really — and rank-and-files don’t manage down. Only middle management does both. It’s taxing, and that’s a big reason why engagement numbers are so low. As you try to keep the boss happy, you often can’t keep your own employees happy. And that’s especially true in organizations without clear priorities — which is many of them.

As corporate business models have evolved from Industrial Age concepts to Knowledge Economy concepts, though, some of the fundamental roles of middle management might be shifting.

Middle management and the Bersin IMPACT Conference

Josh Bersin is a big name in the HR and people management fields, and his Bersin by Deloitte group just had their ninth annual conference down in Florida. My invite got lost in the mail. I jest.

He wrote up a recap of the key themes from the conference, and this part really jumps out:

We don’t need as many middle managers now, so the concept of “leadership by job title” or “leadership by position” has to go away. One of the senior execs I talked with the other day told me “I don’t have time for mid-level managers any more. I can get the information I need to run my business through our digital information systems. If our leaders aren’t hands-on experts in their business areas, I don’t really need them.”

And there you have it — the death of middle management at the hands of more effective technology.


Check this out, right? Let’s say you run a small business selling plumbing supplies. 20 years ago, a lot of your customer information and sales/marketing documents were by hand and in filing cabinets and you kinda needed a few middle management types to keep the trains moving and report up to the owners on what was happening. But three-four years ago, you got a bad-ass CRM like Dynamics or some Oracle thing. It cost a pretty penny, and at first you didn’t want to abandon your old systems — change is hard — but then you realized you spent an arm and six legs on this thing, so you better get to using it. After a while, you realize it’s making things a lot easier. Now you go in and see marketing info, see sales documents, see job invoices, and you can basically manage your whole business and get relevant information while you’re standing in line at SBux.

Why do you need middle management, then?

You don’t.

Middle management and the team of teams

Bersin writes a lot about this concept called “team of teams,” which basically means that in the 1960s organizations were usually top-down hierarchies. They still are in terms of decision-making in most cases, but now what’s happening is that the smarter, better companies are utilizing a team of teams methodology. In those situations, each team is empowered to make decisions at a certain level. This is logical and implies respect and trust for the people you hired (which would also seem logical), and it’s also good because it speeds up decision-making. You don’t have to float information up — which was previously often the role of middle management — and then wait for a decision to come back down. Speedier decision-making is usually a strong revenue play, so corporations should chase that.

This is where the problem arises with middle management and the team of teams concept: ideally, middle management would just redefine their roles within a team-based organization. But typically I’ve seen middle managers not do that, and instead cling to process like they’re on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific. This creates ‘process for the sake of process,’ which is an age-old middle management trick to shift the conversations away from things that tend to scare middle managers — i.e. real ideas, progress, and growth pushed forward by others. If those things come to fruition, the middle management level is threatened; your brain is set up to predict threats, so people don’t want their perch shat on. Instead, they choke everything in process — obscuring the actual conversations that could take place — and the process buries actual results.


More Articles On Management

You might like some of the other things I’ve written on management:


It’s not a good cycle and it’s often driven by middle management. And it has no real place in a team-based ecosystem where hierarchy (in the form of executives) still reigns.

How middle management could evolve

The most logical role for middle management, at least to me, would be serving as the vital cog in the alignment of strategy and execution. In a corporate utopia, executives would set the strategy (long-term vision), and rank-and-files would execute on it. The connection point between the long-term plan and the day-to-day plan would be middle management.

If you’ve ever actually had a job, you know this isn’t really what happens. CEOs talk vaguely in buzzwords to large groups, then spend hours breathlessly analyzing financial metrics with their lieutenants, to the exclusion of essentially any other conversation (i.e. “talent strategy”). CEOs often regularly convince every lieutenant that their silo is the one driving the business, so each silo leader prioritizes work differently for their lieutenants, who then prioritize work differently for middle management. It’s essentially a giant game of telephone in most companies, and every so often the confusing maze is punctuated by a few yelps and shrieks about revenue growth not being what was expected. Then the company slices 100 headcount to make its 10% growth target, and the executives reward themselves with fat bonuses while middle management bellows to rank-and-files about everything needing “a sense of urgency.”

It’s a miserable loop at so many places.

Now, in reality middle management probably won’t die out — because the way we structure companies is very ingrained for a lot of people and, like I said above, change is hard for many people. (It’s probably even harder for organizations, because organizations are a group of different people with different ideas about things.)

But what do you think — is conventional middle management going the way of the Dodo bird, or is this all just nay-saying gloom and doom?

Ted Bauer


  1. The Bersin quote jumped out to me too, when I read it the other night. It jumped out because it’s asinine.

    You nailed it with this thought:
    “The most logical role for middle management, at least to me, would be serving as the vital cog in the alignment of strategy and execution. ”

    No, it doesn’t work that way a lot of times. It can though. It requires thinking differently about what qualifies someone for a managerial role. It requires thinking differently about when another layer is warranted (or not). It requires building right-sized hierarchies that actually build trust instead of steal it.

    • “Build trust instead of steal it” is a great, great and crucial point here.

  2. I don’t want to get into defending middle management per se, because so many middle managers are obviously failing. (Yet, most of the time their failure is designed into the structure of the organisation.)

    However, what I see as middle managers are stripped out is the capacity of the organisation to do anything different, to respond to any changes in the strategic context, is dramatically reduced. We’re building ever more efficient organisations that are increasingly rigid.

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