The Real Role of Middle Management

“People join a company and quit a boss.”

 After years in the business of being managed and managing people, I have recently had an epiphany. Simply put, the idea of middle management is either a contrived and bogus concept put forth to justify another level of oversight or a mechanism to keep the average employee on task–believing that they are irresponsible big kids who need ‘adult supervision’. The fact of the matter is that middle management is misunderstood.

Pure and simple, most so-called mid-level managers are ‘individual contributors’ or subject matter experts who, probably, deserve recognition for their contributions over time to the enterprise. Sadly, however, traditional career ladders are stuck on vertical. As a result, we tend to promote these hard working and competent performers to their “level of incompetence” as articulated in the Peter Principle.

Many argue that mid-level managers are responsible for “organizing, directing and controlling” work. Yet, too frequently, these managers are the very reason that work is unorganized, chaotic and out of control. To avoid taking the fall for a work unit’s performance shortfalls, middle managers often introduce complexity, drama and politics into the workplace. Rarely have I seen a mid-level manager’s job description that emphasizes the importance of strategic goal setting, people development and performance management. Their role, simply put, is to deliver output –with little more than ‘lip service’ being paid to how important it is to the bottom line to bring about employee ownership, engagement and development.

Now is the time to ‘re-purpose’ the role of mid-level manager. We need a new type of mid-level manager. We need someone with high emotional intelligence or EQ, with the ability to connect to people and transfer knowledge–while spotting and developing talent. We need middle managers that recognize their responsibility for both business results and people development; we need to acknowledge that the middle manager is the real human resources professional; we need to promote the ideals of real servant leadership versus rewarding the undercover mentality of a ‘snooper visor”.

So, exactly what is the role of middle management? Is “middle management’s” role to show people how to do the work correctly or to monitor the work that is being done—or both? ? Both these tasks are necessary, but not sufficient, to develop talent.

Development of talent should be the most important role of the middle manager. Development of talent involves honing and enhancing the technical skills of the employee, creating a climate of performance accountability and being responsible for sharing insights regarding on the right way things should get done within the larger organization. The middle manager should be a role model for how to work cross functionally in a cooperative and collaborative way. Unfortunately, the middle manager is the “keeper of the gate” for their functional silo. In spite of the lofty statements printed on laminated cards and posted on bulletin boards, middle managers intuitively know that they will be held accountable for one thing—measurable unit outcomes. How they treat, grow and develop their direct reports is, often, of secondary concern.

Rarely does the middle manager want or get upward feedback from their direct reports. As I have been told and observed, most middle managers are ‘stuck up’. In other words, they are concerned only with how their boss perceives them. And, what the boss wants are cold, hard and measurable results. Pity the middle manager that goes to their superior and says, “Morale is low.” In fact, if they want to get the attention of the superior regarding employee engagement, they would say, “productivity is low.” In the minds of too many middle managers, the people part of the equation is completely outsourced to the Human Resources function. Instead of giving struggling employees constructive feedback, they call in their HR hit man/woman. The HR hit man/woman, who by the way has not observed the employee’s performance, parrots what they have been told by the middle manager. Consequently, when the employee is placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP), he/she is told. “HR made me do this to you.” This failure to own up to the performance management part of their job is the critical disconnect between the manager and the employee.

For any organization to go from ‘Good to Great’, the middle manager must be viewed as the key variable. Now is time to move the manager from being ‘stuck up’ to becoming a bit more ‘stuck down’. Put another way, let them know and reward them for not being a custodian of talent—but, more importantly, becoming a developer of talent. The successful organization will re-calibrate for the middle manager the tasks that are vital to its survival and success—that is an engaged, empowered and developed workforce.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *