James Henderson

Is middle management a precious but wasted resource?

Often overlooked and seldom appreciated, middle management is forever at the front of the “cut the fat” queue in business.

When times are hard, this worker demographic occupies no man’s land – below the safety net of senior leadership and viewed as dispensable compared to frontline employees.

Struggling to shake off an image of paper-pushing bureaucrats that reek of mediocrity, they are deemed to be stubborn defenders of the status quo devoid of corporate imagination or true authority.

So, why would anyone want to be a middle manager?

“Let’s be honest, it’s a tough job,” acknowledged Emily Field, Partner at McKinsey. “But it also can be an incredibly rewarding job if the work that the manager is doing is connected to their purpose and passion.

“Think about it as getting to lead teams on a common mission. That’s energising. Getting to drive results, getting to do more than they thought was possible. That’s a pretty exciting value proposition for a middle manager.”

Emily Field (McKinsey)

According to McKinsey findings, a mismatch exists between what middle managers view as important compared to the work valued by the organisation. In other words, companies lack clarity about what managers should be doing with their time.

For example, middle managers believe they add the most corporate value across strategy focused work (54%), talent and people management (26%), individual contributor work (18%) and administrative work (2%).

Yet most are stuck in the menial with nearly half of their time currently devoted to non-managerial work (49%) – notably spending nearly one full day out of every week on administrative work (18%).

While most of the 706 middle managers surveyed are people managers, on average they spend less than a third of their time on talent management (28%).

“Managers have to be very intentional,” Field said.

Specifically, they have to make the time, have the recurring one-on-one meetings and ask people:

  • What are you working on?
  • What are your goals?
  • What are the things that you want to get better at?
  • And, importantly, what gives you energy?
  • What do you care about?

“That needs to be not once a year and then saying, ‘done’, as part of a performance conversation but actually having that recurring conversation, because that’s how you build the relationship,” Field suggested. “It’s also how you help people explore things that maybe they didn’t even know they were interested in.”

Of the many complications facing middle managers, organisational bureaucracy (44%) ranks as the biggest hurdle to overcome – essentially translating to excessive meetings, emails and approval processes which are a “problem everywhere”.

This is ahead of underperforming employees (26%), senior leadership negativity (26%) and loss of talent (25%), as well as unsustainable work demands (22%), insufficient autonomy (22%) and directive disagreements (17%).

“The number-one thing that we hear about is organisational bureaucracy,” Field explained. “It’s just really hard to get work done.

“Another one that we hear about so often is burnout and the fact that managers are not infallible and they haven’t had the time to put their own oxygen masks on and to really take care of themselves. As a result, they are suffering and their teams suffer too.”

Field labelled this as “administrivia” – routine and trivial tasks that are unrelenting and unproductive.

“Administrivia is all of the tasks that just layer on top of each other,” she outlined. “And no single work form or task is going to break a manager. But it’s the layering of those tasks, the cumulative effect, that, frankly, takes so much time.”

Viewed within the context of hyper-growth firms, Field said what has happened in many cases is an “absolute mushrooming” of organisations promoting people who were “awesome individual contributors”.

“For example, they were deeply skilled engineers who were rock stars at their individual craft and then got promoted,” she said. “But they weren’t developed. Maybe they didn’t want to be managers and, ultimately, they didn’t succeed.”

As co-author of Power to the Middle – an authoritative voice on the importance of middle management – Field said organisations continually struggle to differentiate between individual contributors and middle managers.

“What I’ve consistently heard can be exemplified by a CTO who said, ‘my biggest regret is promoting rock star technical talent to be managers. They didn’t want it. They didn’t stay. Ultimately, they would have been better left as individual contributors’,” Field highlighted.

The other issue is this idea of building organisations so quickly that CEOs haven’t really thought through the structure, roles and responsibilities.

“You haven’t been able to make sure that the work to be done makes sense and is guided by a clear set of principles and values,” Field added.

Maximising middle management

As outlined by McKinsey, middle managers cite increased decision-making authority (30%) and responsibility (29%) – such as stretch assignments and a broadened scope of role – as the preferred reward for their work, closely followed by bonuses (28%), raises (27%) and promotions (26%).

“This idea of how you think about constantly learning, constantly having new opportunities, bigger or different programs to lead and recognising people accordingly is how to incentivise middle managers,” Field added.

“That means making sure that you’re empowering managers to drive the outcomes for which they’re responsible, instead of saying, ‘let’s bog our managers down with to-dos and administration’.”

In short, Field said people should be celebrated for “moving up, down and across” while thinking about different tours of duty within an organisation.

“They get different experiences, they learn and they add value based on what gives them energy,” she stated. “What gives somebody energy at one time may not be what gives them energy forever. Having that flexibility within an organisation is so important to really create experiences that are valued by employees.”

Also of note to employers is the shift to hybrid work because as the physical distance between employees increases, the importance of middle management heightens in parallel.

Working from home is a top-down directive but how do businesses actually make it happen? How do organisations keep closing the books on time and continue producing results for customers?

“It came down to the managers,” Field noted. “When you really think about it, if you invest in these managers, you are able to move mountains. It’s so important, because if we think about managers, in many cases they’re individuals who are burned out themselves.”

To amplify the point, Field cautioned that middle managers are having their own well-being challenges.

“Middle managers have had so much piled onto them,” she said. “Their development, their well-being, has often been an afterthought. We have to make up for it, because when we think about creating resilient organisations, resiliency starts with having a really strong middle management team that’s able to really drive.”

Especially as the industry navigates talent shortages, skill gaps and equity and inclusion, added Field.

“It’s so important to think about people leadership,” she advised. “I would challenge leaders to say, ‘we can’t afford not to’. We have to make sure that managers are focused on one of their most critical responsibilities and that’s people leadership.”


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