Fast Company

Middle Manager, RIP?

More than five years ago, Marcus Buckingham proclaimed that middle managers were the most important people in your company. Why? "The single most important determinant of individual performance is a person's relationship with his or her immediate manager." Not the CEO.

So I was intrigued to see a recent Human Resource Executive article about the impending death of the middle manager. Some research done by Accenture found that not only are middle managers growing increasingly dissatisfied with their organizations, more than 25% of them are looking for new jobs.

This got me thinking about turnover. As the piece states, turnover is inevitable. But while turnover at the top (CEO See-Ya!, anybody?) and at the bottom might actually be healthy for a company, disruption in the middle could be quite dangerous.

What do you think? Who's more expendable: People at the entry level? Senior management? Or team leaders and other middle managers?

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11 Comments

  • Robert Jarvis

    Interesting that Greg Armstead brings up a biological analogy. This post made me think of a piece I read recently (by a Buddhist teacher) based on a conversation he had with Warren Bennis. Basically, the premise is that a focus on leadership per se is misguided, since it's not driven by the needs of the organization (or the organism, as the case may be). Instead, leadership should be distributed throughout the organization, with each "cell" responding to the needs of the larger system rather than to the directives of a "leader." A little abstract, I know--but maybe an interesting way to think about middle management. The original piece is here if you're curious.

  • greg armstead

    SMALL is the new BIG? I don't think so.

    Middle managers appear to be a necessity in large organizations, and unhelpful to small ones. Compare organizations to a growing living organism, such as a seedling that grows into a large plant. At first, only a few elements emerge (first leaves, pilot roots, initial stem) and those elements are all highly productive (growing at geometric rates early on). Here, a very few parts do a lot -- kinda like a small, entrepreneurial organiziation. However, as the plant grows, roles are more carefully segregated and infrastructure is developed (branches, root root ball, tap roots, true leaves, etc.) to support the overall growth in the plant size. The few highly productive cells can no longer do everything!

    In a large organization, middle managers are the infrastructure that orchestrates all this segregated work. The large the org, the more important they are.

  • Malissa Birle

    Hello, my name is Malissa, a student at Bournemouth University. I am currently working on a dissertation which sounds alot like what has been discussed on this site. I find it very interesting that many of you who have responded are middle managers however, it seems to me that the problems existing here are due to poor middle managers causing poor productivity. As has been highlighted in several reseach surveys, this is costing UK busniness 36 days per person per year in lost productivity. Now I'm not blaming the managers, what I am saying is that or posing is that; Are these managers being given sufficient people management training skills or have they just been promoted to their own level of incompetence?

  • nicole cruz

    IMO,teamleaders/middle managers & senior management all plays different roles therefore they are all important in an organization.

  • JM

    I would simplify some of the comments and point out that good middle managers tend to drive business for the company and ensure the operational success of the company. These are the sales managers, the resource managers, the operations managers, the marketing managers, the HR managers and other similar personnel. So what happens when the middle management tier becomes either dissatisfied with the work, or disenchanted with the leadership? They vote with their feet and find other better opportunities. Then again, there really are two types of middle managers at the end of the day - the leader type - who aspires to better opportunities and - the organizer type - who seeks to create the most effective teams, units, departments, organizations, etc. Leader types will always chafe under ineffectual subordinated conditions and seek other opportunities no matter what. Organizer types will seek to make the best out of the situation they are in and try to bring out the best in the people who surround them - these are the real doers in an organization. You do need both of course - visionaries and doers, but the point is, if all the organizers vote with their feet and leave for greener pastures - the company will collapse from the middle. The federal government is an effective example of this. Leadership comes and goes, but the bureaucrats keep the machine running.

  • Bill Anderson

    In the late 80's as it became more about stock values than running a business, CEO types became miro managers and did all sorts of things to drive middle management crazy.

    Middle managers have been the heart and soul of business, who like sargents have keep the 90day wonders at the top out of trouble.

    I worked for a utility where the CEO tried to sell off all the assets and business and we in middle managment wondered what the company would be when he finished. He was a famous wall street type another 90 day wonder.

  • Theresa Quintanilla

    I do see a necessary role for middle managers as the co-ordinators between the front line and the top managers who distribute funding. While the exodus of middle managers is usually due to poor opportunities to grow in large corporations, it's also important to realize it's never been more difficult to be caught in the middle.

    We need new behavioral paradigms for middle managers and better training programs. As the toughest, most adaptable managers figure it out for themselves, a better understanding of the middle management role will emerge. In the meantime--it's a meatgrinder!

  • bm

    The problem is that so many employers don't care for their staff. It is all about the bottom line and hoe good they look and not about the people or the efforts that help them get to the top.

    In my line of work my client tends to be a middle manager, and unfortunately I very rarely find one that is truly happy with their job.

    As managers we need to start defending ourselves and our positions. The company cannot make it without our roles. So the big guns can either make it comfortable,profitable and enjoyable for us or keep paying the head hunters to bring more people to the table.

  • SMC (prefer anonymity)

    In larger organizations, the active participation of middle managers is essential ... I do agree that front-liners and entry-level individuals need information and as much transparency as possible ... along with a place to grow and positions to move into--but without the effective direction and mentoring of middle managers, they're not going anywhere ...

    Sadly, I can see why some of the most creative and productive "middle-manager types" leave organizations. Most offer little flexibility and the beaurocracy can be suffocating.

    After many years of consultative and start-up work (yes, I agree with SMALL is the new BIG), I'm back with a large organization...one that actually tries to accomodate employees. However, even here, I see it ... lost potential and opportunities to connect with employees in a way that really gets the machine going.

    I guess I'm before my time ... I hope for better for my kids (who I've turned my attention to as prodigies for the "work environment of the future") ... people at the top today just don't get it (or they don't want to understand what motivates employees). And the best "middle managers" leave for better arrangements and bigger more gratifying challenges ... sort of an anti-selection equation if you ask me.

  • Brian Aquino

    Its really dangerous to remove middle managers... but only in a corporate set-up wherein it is identified as a necessity; to monitor its minions' movements.

    Once you empower your front-liners (give them the data, show them how to analyze it, educate them how to monitor results ad performance),the existence of middle managers fades away.

    This type of front-liners exist with entrepreneurs and small based companies.

    SMALL is the NEW BIG!

  • Trisha Parks

    I think its normal to loose poeple whether its in the entry level or in the upper level. At least this will give people at the bottom a greater chance to go up..