Home Articles Too few carrying too many: Why middle managers are business’ unsung heroes

Too few carrying too many: Why middle managers are business’ unsung heroes


The research repetitively demonstrates that people leave their bosses, not their jobs. More often than not this boss is an under-resourced, under-trained, undervalued and overburdened middle manager. Who would want to be a middle manager these days?

Due to IT advancements and productivity imperatives, among other factors, they are now managing more people, coping with more complexity and working within tighter time frames than ever before. Middle managers are carrying too many, too much, too often.

The trials and tribulations of a middle manager

Furthermore, they are the first to cop the blows when redundancies loom. They are typically overlooked for training, as senior management and on boarding and/or graduate programs steal the show, a phenomenon known as the barbell effect; heavy on the ends, light in the middle.

This has exacted a heavy toll in terms of underperforming and demoralized managers, who lack the networking, strategic planning and leadership skills necessary to excel in today’s flat organisational structures.

This flat structure results in little opportunity for promotion, as senior managers hold onto their comparatively fat pay checks, often three times larger than that of their middle management lackeys.

Adding more frustration is the grey ceiling; that is baby boomers retiring later and thus sabotaging the ambitions of their impatient direct reports.

“Middle Managers receive fewer resources, manage more demands and are less engaged than all other employee groups,” according to a Bersin & Associates 2011 report titled Maximizing Middle Managers.

This is despite the fact that Middle Managers are critical in the execution of change and culture programs, as Becker observes, bridging the gap between the macro level (designing structures, administrative processes, missions, cultures, strategies and protocols) and micro level implementation (knowledge, needs, skills, experience, communication, learning, values, practices).

No wonder hard-earned talent is walking out

The effect of not developing your managers cannot be overstated. Not only does it contribute to the high cost of unwanted turnover, it also fractures the communication channel between senior management and the front line.

This simultaneously hamstrings innovation and learning. It is pivotal for an organisation to be able to respond quickly and effectively to market demands.

To sustain growth you must back your managers and allow them to do the job you need them to do. Here are a few tips:

1. Recognise that middle managers are leaders

Managers these days are mostly team leaders suspended in a web of working relationships, who require the emotional intelligence to motivate, engage, communicate and facilitate.

More often than not they oversee teams of Gen Y employees, who don’t want to be managed. They want autonomy and, when required, mentoring and/or coaching by someone they respect, someone they can trust and someone from whom they can learn.

Empowering your managers with these types of leadership skills not only fortifies you against the loss of your star performers, it ensures you have a leadership pipeline for future succession planning.

2. Treat training as a process, not an event

According to the AIG – Australian Industry Group – the evidence from both academic research and business surveys conclusively demonstrates that workplaces with more effective leadership and management capability are more productive, more profitable and more innovative.

Such workplaces consistently invest in strategy driven, outcome focused training at all levels. It is part of the fabric of everyday business; a continuous learning process, where the process of doing, reflecting, learning and doing again never ceases.

3. Recognise and celebrate success

Managers are frequently so focused on achieving the next goal that they don’t take time to celebrate what has already achieved. But success breeds success. Celebrating team success is not only a great motivational tool for your team, but also inspires others.

It is a great time to reflect of what worked, what didn’t work and what you can do differently going forward. This is excellent sustenance for the team leader, who can use such intelligence to improve project outcomes going forward.

So be public and be proud and set yourself up for future success.

Middle management is a thankless job. It is wedged between a floating floor of restless Gen Y’s and a concrete ceiling of entrenched baby boomers.

However if you want to keep your star performers, effect sound business strategy and trump the competition, your middle managers may very well be the ace in your hand.

Graham Winter is an Australian psychologist and best-selling author of Think One Team, the 90 day plan that engages employees, connects silos and transforms organisations.