If you do a Google search for the term “middle manager,” you will notice a disturbing theme. The top articles that pop up are: “Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting?“, “The Miserable Middle Managers,” and “Why Middle Managers Need A Hug.” This past year has been a rough one for many, but the misery and fatigue experienced by middle managers started long before the pandemic.
As 50 percent of organizations began working remotely at the onset of the pandemic, middle managers’ dual role of being their employer’s mouthpiece and employees’ resource put them at the crux of remote work success. The pandemic highlighted the need for organizations to give their middle managers more resources and development to be project managers, activators, support systems, liaisons and more. With this heightened realization, why do so many organizational leaders continue to be so dismissive of this critical role?
The Origin of Middle Management
Before the 1700s, there was little need for “middle management.” There were rulers and subjects, landowners and workers, tradespeople and vagrants, and little in between. Then, steam power and textile production kicked off the first Industrial Revolution in 18th century Great Britain. The 19th century saw steel production and electricity rise to prominence, and the 20th century soared innovatively! Visionaries created automobiles, airplanes, sonar, radar, nuclear energy, personal computers, the internet, and so much more! From an organizational structure perspective, the most lasting invention to come from the Industrial Revolution is the role of the middle manager.
As production and processes became more automated, organizations’ structures became hierarchical. Company owners could no longer handle producing the output necessary to keep up with demand by themselves, so they hired people to help them. As their organizations and workforces grew, they needed help supervising the many workers under their employ. Owners required a layer of supervision under them that could act simultaneously as their eyes and ears overseeing operations as well as their mouthpieces relaying expectations. Thus, middle management was born.
In the early part of the 20th century, the factory system experienced a significant advance with the introduction of management science. Initially considered to be any application of science to solve management problems or to the process of management, it has since evolved to encompass operations research, systems analysis, and the study of management information systems. The attention to management science as a professional discipline further cemented middle managers’ need as their roles and their colleagues’ roles became subjects of efficiency, effectiveness, and communication.
Going From Integral …
Management scientists like Frederick Taylor, Max Weber, Peter Drucker, and W. Edwards Deming explored topics such as economic performance, motivation, quality control, and organizational structure. Their concepts and theories were typically rooted in hierarchical organizational structures that centralized their decision making.
As the manufacturing industry soared in the United States, the need for middle managers increased. Peter Drucker emphasized in the mid-1950s that stable and secure employment helped build a highly motivated, committed workforce. Middle managers were an integral cog of the company machine, keeping that workforce motivated.
By the 1970s, things started changing for those in middle management. Oil prices rose, and a strong dollar made American products much more expensive than imported goods. Mass layoffs were prominent during this time. For the first time on a mass scale, middle managers suffered the double whammy of delivering the bad news to employees and then being laid off themselves.
In the 1980s, opportunities for middle managers continued to diminish. Organizations explored new management structures that decreased the need for middle management. Some popular practices included having a boundaryless organization whereby employees are grouped by competencies centered around technology, information, and expertise. Likewise, decentralized team management structures also started to arise whereby decision-making is decentralized to the team’s level.
Beginning in the mid-90s and peaking in the early 2000s, the trend for “flat organizations” practically eliminated the need for middle managers altogether. Flat organizations have no hierarchy with few or no levels of management between organizational leaders and staff. In theory, this sounds great, but according to Inc.’s Minda Zetlin, “Hierarchies will arise spontaneously, whether you want them or not.” She states, “The person with the best ideas, the best people skills, and the clearest vision of what needs to be done is the person who should really be in charge. That should be someone you select, not someone who just happens to speak up in a flat organization.”
Importance of Resurrecting Middle Management in a Virtual Organization
To reduce the risk of “someone who just happens to speak up,” leading your teams, empower your middle managers to be successful in their role. In in-person work environments, organization leaders could do things like walk through the office to check on individual employees or get a feel for their employees’ “vibes” or attitudes. They can’t do that in a virtual environment. They need to devote more of their time and tasks to strategy and operations. The responsibility of monitoring individuals on a team or gauging their team’s effectiveness pulse falls to middle managers. According to Jane Farran, a senior fellow in Wharton Executive Education and managing partner of the consulting firm C4, “These intermediaries have a very important role. The middle managers translate strategy and the big picture so that it makes sense and is applicable for the day-to-day workers.” In addition, “they are a buffer between the top managers” and lower-level employees.
Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade says that “If you are a middle manager, there may be a chance that you didn’t have much to do with [change happening in your organization], but you need to translate it to your people and make them feel protected and valued. However, you are also someone being impacted by the change. Because you didn’t design the change, you might be left feeling like you don’t know what to do yourself, but you still need to comfort, protect, and inspire your people.” Within the last year, the single most considerable change for employers has been the impact of working from home due to COVID. Supporting and training middle managers to navigate this change is imperative to ensuring positive outcomes.
According to Joseph Ryan, Ph.D., Founder and President, True North Advisory Group says, “Regardless of the economic climate, companies need to build a resilient workforce and engage the middle to go forward, because this is where change occurs.” The need to train middle managers to communicate, manage, and lead more effectively virtually will only increase as 25-30% of the total workforce are projected to be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
Helping Middle Managers Grow
After having their roles historically downsized, minimized, and diminished, it’s no wonder middle managers need a hug. We have clients whose middle managers have shouldered the responsibilities of carrying out their leaders’ goals in moving operations virtual as well as being the source of best practices for their employees to follow in the transition. They moved from in-person to remote with little to no consideration of how communication protocols would change, how to manage projects, or how to use technology more efficiently. We have been working closely with them to give them the tools they need to navigate these unique waters effectively.
Based on our expertise helping other organizations, here are some suggestions you can institute to help your middle managers thrive in a remote work environment:
- Provide coaching to help them better engage with their employees to recognize early signs of distress and disengagement.
- Establish a baseline, company wide communication protocols; do not leave this up to individual departments. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
- Invest in project management tools that promote transparency and accountability of project roles, clear timelines, and specific responsibilities.
- Encourage them to have weekly check-ins with each individual on their team and regular all team check ins.
- Work with middle managers to promote and encourage a culture of teamwork, appreciation, trust and accountability to name just a few qualities. Strong organizational cultures are resilient and can withstand shocks, like the sudden or even intentional shift to a distributed workforce.
Acknowledging their needs and fostering middle managers’ professional growth is an investment in your organization’s future. Stop exhausting them and start empowering them! Give them the tools to translate your organization’s goals better while also nurturing the strengths of their employees. You may not realize it, but they are the most crucial piece of fabric your organization has holding together your organization’s various levels. Don’t let that fabric tear. The more you can do to strengthen their bonds, the stronger your entire organization will be.
If you are looking for ways to provide your middle managers with more coaching and training navigating a remote work environment, sign up for one of our webinars or contact us today to learn how we can help.