Manager in the Middle: The Challenges and Opportunities of Middle Management

CoachHub · 30 August 2022 · 6 min read

Over a decade ago, online staffing giant, Monster.com ran a series of advertisements featuring young children sharing what they wanted to be when they grew up. One of those ads focused on the middle manager. Tongue-in-cheek in nature, the ads depict the stereotypical middle management tasks and typical job titles as the opposite of what any person would aspire to, let alone as a child. The commercial features lines such as “When I grow up, I want to claw my way to middle management. Be replaced on a whim… When I grow up, I want to be underappreciated.” If you’ve seen the ads, you might have chuckled. They are funny. 

Unfortunately, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) evidence shows that middle managers are more depressed than either their subordinates or their superiors. Furthermore, there’s also research that shows managers are in the bottom five percent when it comes to job satisfaction. In other words, middle managers are miserable. Stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, they’re literally jugglers stuck in the middle of everything and everyone. Moreover, instead of being treated as the center of the wheel from which everything turns, they’re often left feeling ignored, underprepared and unappreciated.

What is middle management?

In most organizations, middle management describes managers who sit in the middle of the company hierarchy. They’re both in a leadership position and report to upper management. They’re often the interface between their team and a firm’s top leadership. Not every company has a traditional corporate hierarchy anymore. Therefore, some people by virtue of job title or seniority might function as, or perform roles that essentially are the same or similar to the typical “middle manager.” For example, a “direct report,” or “direct manager,” or “team leader,” etc., could all perform a similar function and yet, not be in the middle of the organization hierarchy. They could be the senior colleague, or even someone in upper management who reports directly to the CEO or company president.

The ideal middle manager must possess many skills to be successful, including communication, leadership, strategy, time management and vision. They’re often the best person on the team in terms of professional knowledge, skill and experience and when they’re promoted, they may or may not receive any training in how to be a successful team leader or mentor employees.

Middle Management

What do middle managers do?

Typical middle management responsibilities will vary from organization to organization. However, the typical middle manager may perform leadership duties while also performing the job they did before they were promoted to a leadership position. Furthermore, expectations of people in the middle management position are high. They are subject matter experts, people leaders, part of the operations team and also must be strategic. 

The typical middle manager’s duties and responsibilities might include:

  • Set team goals, mentor members of their team and provide employee feedback, including performance reviews.
  • Set job descriptions and hire, discipline and fire employees ––sometimes in collaboration with Human Resources (HR) and/or at the direction of upper management.
  • Plan the team budget and oversee everyday team operations.
  • Act as a go-between who delivers messages from upper management and enforces company policies they might hate as much as their team does.

In some industries, where middle managers are also subject matter experts who still perform advanced functions within the teams they manage, they might also wear a project manager hat in addition to their employee management duties. Regardless, the skills required of them are many from professional to “soft skills” ––networking with prospects, mentoring colleagues, leading their team or department, negotiating with customers and employees, following their bosses’ instructions, managing their time effectively, etc.

With so many responsibilities and expectations, is it any wonder the average middle management person is burned out and unhappy? But there’s still more. Because of their role, the middle manager is swamped with administrative tasks and also spends a significant chunk of time attending meetings. Many of them have very little opportunity for advancement beyond their current level because a lack of leadership training or professional development within their organization. 

Moreover, they’re literally in the middle and must be the cheerleader for and chief communicator of company goals and policies passed down from the top. At the same time, their job means having to listen to employee complaints and bear the brunt of the blame for unpopular policies they have no control over and may also dislike. And if that’s still not enough, their role is typically undervalued and seen as potentially expendable by corporate leadership. This issue became more prevalent during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when many companies made decisions at lightning speed, while middle management was furloughed or laid off.

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Middle managers role in coaching and training development

However, the escalating war on middle management is misguided, according to McKinsey leaders Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger. Covid also sped the adoption of advanced technology that replaced some of the functions middle managers did prior to age of Zoom meetings and working from home. When used responsibly, the same technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, can help lift the weight of some middle management responsibilities. Real-time feedback from a human. Employees want that. They want leaders, mentors, coaches, apprenticeships. Technology can’t replace the human element those types of programs require; it can’t replace that human connection that happens in person and in hybrid offices, over a video call. 

Advanced technology is great as a tool that can help aid the decision process but should never be a substitute for it. Algorithms, graphs and numbers on spreadsheets are wonderful as support, but can’t replace empathy and other human elements. However, it’s those social capital-related areas, the soft skills and leadership skills that are often the most ignored pieces of not just the middle management training and professional development puzzle, but of the overall companywide training and employee development strategy. In fact, Accenture research found that 77% of leaders say soft skills, such as empathy, communication and collaboration are significant weaknesses despite training. 

 

Coaching for middle managers helps them succeed and improves job satisfaction and performance

Most training for new middle managers or onboarding of new employees in the role mostly involves processes, systems, products and not leadership. A 2021 Harvard Business School Survey surfaced interesting data that further illuminates challenges related to leadership development, including that 75% of leadership content is forgotten within six days after training. There is hope, however, that leadership coaching for middle managers and frontline managers provides numerable benefits across the entire organization:

  • Improves employee engagement
  • Improves retention of middle managers
  • Enhances proactivity
  • Improves performance
  • Increases frontline manager autonomy
  • Increases manager self-confidence
  • Improves work performance
  • Improves professional relationships
  • Enhances communication skills
  • Improves empathy and understanding

Ongoing coaching for employees in middle management and equivalent roles targets areas ignored during typical onboarding and professional training. It can also improve the retention and implementation of any leadership training that did occur during onboarding or other career development. CoachHub provides leadership coaching solutions designed for all levels of learning that help employees develop tactical problem-solving skills and adopt new ways of thinking, including behaviors they will take with them as they progress to senior leadership roles within the organization.

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