Look, there are inherent challenges to being a middle manager: it’s the only role where you have to manage in two directions. Executives don’t really manage up (maybe to their Board) and rank-and-file employees don’t manage down. So a middle manager is pulled in many directions, sure. That needs to be acknowledged.
But the overall picture is pretty grim. There are two big elephants in this tiny room, those being:
- The bottom line elephant: Middle managers cost the U.S. about $3 trillion per year in lost productivity. (Honestly.) That should — and does — matter to execs, which is why you’ll increasingly see those types of redundant roles automated out, even though some middle manager about to get canned has four kids and an underwater mortgage.
- The efficiency elephant: For years (generations?), the argument was that “middle managers make the trains run.” Then along came apps like Dropbox and CRMs with powerful mobile applications. Now a middle manager is a lot less relevant. A true decision-maker can go to Starbucks, stand on line, and see all the numbers he needs to run the business. See how this would impact Mr. Middle Manager? The trains run on bytes now, not Paul from Operations.
So what now?
What should the role of a middle manager be?
I think this is the first question we need to ask. Because, unfortunately, many of the answers given here aren’t supported too well by research.
For example: one easy answer to “What should a middle manager do?” is “develop people.” I mostly agree with that. Middle managers are the direct bosses of those people, so shouldn’t they develop them? Makes sense.
Well, it makes sense until you see some recent MIT research that:
- Less than 10% of middle managers believe they can help their employees change over time
- Only 28% of middle managers felt confident they could motivate their employees
OK, so maybe they shouldn’t be developing people … let’s try another one.
How about “be a judge of new ideas,” i.e. vet them for executives so that execs aren’t inundated with pitches all day?
Cool! That works!
Well, until you see research from Stanford on how most managers are super-poor judges of new ideas.
OK. I got it. What if a middle manager could be a priority-setter? They translate strategy (execs) into execution (worker bees), right?
Here we go. This one has potential!
Er, until you realize managers are horrible judges of priority and often waste 45% of their own week on nothingness.
Hmmm. Now what?
First thing: realize how important job role really is. Being a middle manager is an entirely new job role. It can’t be created without definition, because then we get to that $3 trillion lost stat above.
Second thing: It’s actually probably better to have discussions about career skills as opposed to job role. Seems this is often missed.
Now we need to figure out what middle managers should do all day. Let’s see if we can do that.
The ideal role of a middle manager
- Reach down into the organization
- Consistently translate the strategy into front-line behaviors
- Identify the key players in your organization and treat them as company heroes
- Allow those heroes to have power over their own decisions
A lot of that is bluster/bullshit. (1) isn’t a clearly-defined action, (2) makes sense, (3) would be deemed “a HR thing,” and (4) would never work the way most view hierarchy. So (2) works. Let’s keep that.
- Developing people (at least before automation gets to scale)
- Communicating ideas and deliverables
- Being able for discussions/feedback opportunities/challenges
- Stepping back and being a “thought partner” as opposed to micro-managing
- Making sure goals/KPIs are achieved while ensuring the whole team understands why, what, and how
Problems: (1) seen as “HR thing,” (2) is valid, (3) is valid but most view feedback as a “soft skill,” (4) is micro-managing, which is ingrained in most people, and (5) is the whole deal about task work/KPIS killing strategy.
OK, so we’ve got (2) here again, and maybe (3).
Let’s add it all up.
A middle manager should…
- Take the strategy (from above) and …
- Communicate that that strategy into tasks for workers (the below) …
- And subsequently provide feedback to those workers about how the work is going …
- As well as the execs
Your goals should be “align strategy with execution” and “communicate.” It’s really that basic.
For this to happen, we need A LOT of things to happen, including:
- Executives who also communicate and don’t assume everything is proprietary
- Middle managers with soft skills
- Some degree of self-awareness
- People who understand the value of context in managing others
- An understanding of how communication works best in the workplace
- Unicorns in the copy room
Most of these things won’t happen in most organizations. A typical middle manager has an unclear job role, is pulled in 29 different directions, and probably gets a decent raise maybe every seven years. He also has kids who break stuff at fancy dinners and a wife that mostly finds him passively interesting. The second act of life can be tough.
But look: work will never get better for most white-collar employees until we improve the role and clarity of the middle manager. So what you got?