As the buffer between upper management and lower-level employees, middle managers are oftentimes overlooked. But they play a vital role in the company’s day-to-day operations. Middle managers have become even more important as remote work increases and the physical distance between employers and employees widens. Read on to learn about middle managers, including what they do, the challenges they face, and how to help them succeed.
Collins Dictionary says, “Middle management refers to managers who are below the top level of management, and who are responsible for controlling and running an organization rather than making decisions about how it operates.” In short, a middle manager serves as an intermediary (or liaison) between upper management and the junior staff. As 1 journal article states, “Middle managers occupy a central position in organizational hierarchies, where they are responsible for implementing senior management plans by ensuring junior staff fulfill their roles.”
Note that senior-level employees are at the top of the organizational hierarchy. They have the most authority and decision-making power at the company, and are concerned with the business’ strategic objectives rather than its day-to-day operations. Middle managers are entrusted with executing these strategic objectives/directives on a day-to-day basis. Depending on the organization, there may be few middle managers. Or, there may be an expansive middle management ranking system with both senior and junior middle managers. The larger the company, the more levels of management it has. So, as the business grows, the need for more middle managers may become apparent.
Keep in mind the following are only examples, and middle management structures vary by company.
Middle management: Small business - In a small business, the owner may be the only person in upper management. For instance, the owner of a small retail store hires a general manager, who reports directly to the owner. Depending on how small the business is, this general (middle) manager may or may not have direct reports.
Middle management: Midsize business - In a midsize company, department heads may report to the owner or someone else at the top. In this case, the department heads are upper (not middle) management because they are responsible for making strategic decisions regarding their units, plus they report directly to the top echelon. For instance, an HR director is upper management, and the HR manager who reports to that HR director is middle management. The HR director creates HR policies and procedures, which the HR manager implements/manages by delegating to the junior HR staff.
Middle management: Large business - In large companies, middle managers are typically department heads, such as finance, IT, HR, marketing, and sales managers, who report to upper management. However, in a very large business, there may be a C-suite, as well. For example:
As one report explains, “Middle managers are the "ears and eyes" of upper management because they are closer to day-to-day operations, customers and front-line employees. At the same time they are far away enough from the front lines to allow them to keep in mind the "big picture."
Middle managers typically start their careers in specialist roles and oftentimes take on various jobs. This enables them to establish a strong professional network, which can benefit their employer.
The plights of the middle manager are quite well known. One of the main conundrums is grounded in the notion that middle managers are ordinary, unremarkable positions. Per a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “The idea of middle managers as unexceptional, mediocre supervisors has been around for decades — at least since a seminal 1977 HBR article by Abraham Zaleznik that made a clear, explicit distinction between being a leader (an inspirational visionary) and a manager (a strategic administrator).” Due to this stigma, middle managers aren’t always respected, or appreciated by their employers or peers.
According to one report, middle managers “are the unhappiest employees at U.S. organizations.” The reason being, middle managers are stuck with the busywork of managing lower-level employees and answering to those in upper management. This can be a frustrating place to be, especially when their subordinates object to the policies they are responsible for implementing — policies they often have no say in shaping. All of this can lead to stress, and even depression. The report cites a study in which 18% of supervisors and managers reported depression — a higher percentage than blue-collar workers (12%) and owners and executives (11%) reporting depression. Another study found that in terms of job satisfaction, middle managers fall in the bottom 5%. Middle managers also report burnout, particularly when it comes to adapting to changing business needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have middle managers, there are things you can do to alleviate job-related unhappiness they may be feeling.
Middle managers need technological tools that can make their jobs easier. These tools streamline, simplify, and speed up activities, such as:
Show your middle managers you care about their future by supplying learning and development opportunities. This allows them to keep their current skills sharp and learn new ones. Through learning and development, they can become better managers to their direct reports and a greater asset to the company. If you ever need to fill an upper management position, a qualified middle manager may be within your walls.
The aforementioned HBR article provides an illustration of “connecting leaders and practices.” It is a good example of how middle managers can get caught in the middle, by serving 2 parties. Below are examples of this illustration, along with mitigation strategies.
The connecting leader, Janus, empathizes with both sides, but runs the risk of burnout and emotional labor/stress. This can be mitigated by delivering coaching and psychological support.
The connecting leader, Broker, seeks to negotiate with both parties to bring them together, but may encounter a lack of availability from upper management. This can be mitigated by championing a culture of transparency and humility.
Upper management can reduce stress in their middle managers by being considerate of their time. Remember, these are busy “on-the-ground” managers, with a lot on their plates. It’s important to ensure what’s on those plates is realistic and attainable, or you risk your middle managers becoming stressed out and dissatisfied. Reward them for their hard work, and help them succeed by giving them the resources they need.