Support Your Middle Managers

Middle management is more often the butt of jokes than any other level within the organizational hierarchy. It’s a hard place to be for many reasons, but one that as many as 10.5 million American workers find themselves in at present. It’s worth remembering, however, that middle management represents a key time in the employee development and succession planning pipelines. Instead of making fun of middle managers and their plight, they need to be viewed as the next source of a company’s senior-level leaders. You’ve got to support your middle managers.


If you take a look at your middle managers and try to envision them as senior leaders, what’s your reaction? For many, it will be something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” If your reaction is anything like that, it indicates two things: The first is that you’re not alone, and the second is that you’ve got some serious work to do in shaping up your middle managers to become the next wave of leaders in your organization.

And here is something important for middle managers to understand: As many organizations have gotten “flatter” by eliminating some layers of management, the leap that you need to make is from middle-management directly to senior-level management. That also means you’ll probably spend more time as a middle manager before you’re ready to make the leap to the upper level. While that may be frustrating given the lack of autonomy that seems inherent to most middle-manager positions, use this time to sharpen the skills you’ll need to succeed in a new position.

But here’s what organizations need to hear: Your middle managers are the key to your organization’s successful future, but they’re overburdened and under-trained. This is an urgent situation that must be addressed in organizations across the nation. These middle managers are your future, but their current stake in organizations is both insecure and threatens them with burnout before you can turn them into the leaders you need them to become.

A Harvard Business Publishing paper called Danger in the Middle: Why Midlevel Managers Aren’t Ready to Lead highlights this untenable situation, likening the current employee development environment as a “barbell” in which efforts are concentrated at the ends (entry-level and senior-level) but light in the middle. As one study by Bersin & Associates noted in 2011, “Middle managers receive fewer resources, manage more people, and are less engaged than all other employee groups.” Allowing this configuration to persist will make it very difficult for organizations to achieve their long-term strategic objectives and business goals. Clearly, this should not be considered an option.

One critical area to focus on is the shift in mindset that is needed when transitioning from management to leadership. Of course we want our managers to be good leaders, and our leaders to be good managers, but there are differences between the two that are important to understand. I’ve used the table below in many articles and presentations to help people understand how leadership and management are different. It’s from Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory and Practice, 4th Ed. (Sage Publications, 2007), which in turn draws from John Kotter’s A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management (Free Press, 1990):


In today’s “permanent white water” environment of rapid, complex change, managers tend to react to change and manage it, whereas leaders proactively shape it and lead it. The importance of making this shift in mind-set cannot be overstated and is the fundamental starting point for transitioning your middle managers to the leadership roles you will need them to fill in the future.

Stay tuned for future articles on this website that will walk you through some powerful ways to strengthen your development efforts aimed squarely at supporting middle management to become the leaders your organizations needs for long-term success.

February 2, 2015   Updated :March 17, 2015   leadership, middle manager, midlevel management   

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