Middle Managers Squeezed by Change: How to Cope


Many, if not most, management employees spend most of their careers in middle management. A typical career path in a manufacturing or service-oriented firm is to spend a few years managing hourly employees, and then to get promoted to managing other managers. Where you may stay for many years. Given the pyramid structure of most companies, few middle managers move into “upper management,” where they have division-level responsibilities.

Ethan Mollick of Wharton Business School has argued that middle managers have more impact on company performance than any other group in knowledge-based organizations.  Although their function may seem bureaucratic, middle managers allocate the resources that determine what work gets done in the organization.  They also set the tone of the workplace in terms of encouraging innovation and creativity.
While top management may decree what the company’s direction and strategy should be, these decisions do not get implemented without the support of middle managers. Many change management efforts in organizations fail because senior leadership fails to get the buy-in of middle managers.

Despite their critical role, middle managers often do not get much respect.  In July 2012, David K. Williams wrote in Forbes that middle managers are on their way out and will not be missed, because organizations need leaders, not managers.   In January 2011, Lynda Gratton wrote a column for the Harvard Business Review titled “End of the Middle Manager.”  

No wonder, then, that the Center for Creative Leadership reported in their October 2012 e-Newsletter  that middle managers are squeezed and suffer the most stress of any role in the organization. Middle managers suffer the worst work/life balance and feel the least job security.

In that same e-Newsletter issue, another CCL article stated that change is ongoing and relentless. Middle managers are the ones squeezed by the change. They are pushed from both above and below.

In her article in the Harvard Business Review, Gratton argued that for middle managers to survive in the information age, (1) they need to develop unique and valuable knowledge or competencies, and (2) they need to expand their knowledge into “adjacencies” so that their knowledge grew broader as their responsibilities increased. In other words, middle managers are in the middle of constant change and growth.

Despite the time pressures on middle managers, CCL says that it is critical for them to take time to reflect on the following questions:

  • What could you accomplish at work?
  • What goals can you set?
  • How might your personal life be better?
  • How could your relationships improve?
  • How would you feel if these improvements occurred?

Although middle managers are squeezed, they are responsible for themselves. Some of my earlier posts on empowering yourself might offer more suggestions. Here are links to those posts:

Step One: Determine the Current Reality 
Step Two = Choose to Assert Your Own Powers
Step Three = Recognize and Use Office Politics Positively
Step Four = Recognize the Difficulty of Change

What do you do to take responsibility for empowering yourself at work?

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Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

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