A few weeks ago, I was surrounded by middle managers from a major government department. We were on the top floor of a collaborative working space. The surroundings were more bar than office. The middle managers were clearly trying to blend in. They had traded suits and ties for the kind of calculated casual you expect at an away day.
The topic of the event was innovation, but what got most of the middle managers excited was the barriers they face. It was clear that many of them wanted to do something innovative, but also knew that any new proposal they had was likely to die. When they were asked why this happened, there were many culprits. The most reviled of all was middle managers themselves.
Middle managers are certainly not popular. Their underlings see them as petty tyrants, while senior executives deride them as myopic functionaries. What struck me during this discussion was just how much middle managers can hate themselves. One of the most vociferous critics of middle management is often middle managers themselves!
Although it might seem easy to blame many of the problems of many organisations on middle management, research suggests they are actually a vital part of getting anything done. The late Steven Floyd, an American business school professor, spent decades studying the difference middle managers make. His research showed that the great visions of corporate leaders only get transformed into reality through a lot of work by middle managers. In one study, Floyd pointed out that middle managers can make a large difference through either improving the quality of decisions which are made or more efficiently implementing decisions. We also know from decades of research that middle managers often make a huge difference to employees’ experience of the workplace. Surveys have shown that one of the single biggest explanations of people’s level of job satisfaction is the quality of their manager.
The vital role these managers play in organisational performance has recently been highlighted by Zahira Jaser from the University of Sussex. After spending a career in middle management in the financial industry, Jaser was interested in finding out what made a good middle manager. She discovered that the best middle managers were those who sought to bring together their subordinates and superiors in strategic ways. She noticed that these managers did so in different ways. There were the tightrope walkers who sought to diplomatically balance the demands of their superiors and subordinates. There were conduits who saw their job as selectively ‘amplifying’ the voices of their subordinates upwards. There were the brokers who sought to strategically connect people from upper and lower echelons. And finally there were the “janus faced” managers – who showed one face to their followers and another to their leaders.
“Middle managers need to be a little easier on themselves and should seek support in dealing with the tensions inherent in their roles”
Jaser noticed that each of these strategies could work, but each came with demands. Often brokering the tensions between fed-up followers and senior managers who wanted things done rapidly was difficult. They often found themselves cognitively over-loaded, emotionally burnt out and feeling stuck in double-binds. However, she did notice that the most skillful middle managers found ways of balancing these tensions in ways which allowed them to get things done.
First, leaders of most organisations spend a lot of time worrying about who is appointed to the top management team. While this is important, perhaps they should spend a little more time worrying about who sits in the middle. Second, lower-level employees often assume their boss is being unreasonable, stupid or cruel. Much of the time, their boss is simply trying to balance the competing demands of their followers and their boss. This means a big question people should ask themselves is not just “what does my boss want?”, but also “what does my boss’s boss want?”. Finally, middle managers need to be a little easier on themselves. It is a hard job and you will often find yourself stuck in the middle of unresolvable tensions. Often simply acknowledging these tensions and seeking support in dealing with them can help turn a lose-lose situation into something which can be managed.
André Spicer is the executive dean of Bayes Business School and a professor of organisational behaviour