Middle Managers: How to Thrive between a Rock & a Hard Place

Middle Managers
Morag Barrett
Morag Barrett is sought out speaker and the author of "Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships" and "The Future-Proof Workplace" published by Wiley March 2017. She's also the founder and CEO of www.SkyeTeam.com, an international HR consulting and leadership development company. Morag’s experience ranges from senior executive coaching to developing leaders and teams across Europe, America and Asia. SkyeTeam works with clients in a range of industries including: Healthcare, Telecoms, Mining, Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology. She's a regular contributor to the American Management Association, Entrepreneur.com and CIO.com.
Morag Barrett

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I help organizations, teams & individuals get unstuck | leadership development | Keynote Speaker | Author 'Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships'
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Morag Barrett
Morag Barrett

Middle Managers often find themselves between a rock and a hard place

In the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein teamed up with several lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, to write the operetta, Candide. One song had this lyric:

“Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds one finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.”

For many, if not most, middle managers, the opposite is true. It’s the worst of all possible worlds: more responsibility, but less authority; higher demands, but fewer resources; more meetings, but no time. Those above them are deaf to their cries and under-appreciate their efforts. They fail to realize that their middle managers feel trapped in their jobs, unable to do exert any meaningful influence on anyone. They blame them for successfully implementing bad policies and congratulate themselves when good ones come to fruition.

Whence middle managers?

It’s worth remembering how middle managers found their place in the hierarchy to begin with. Nearly 100 years ago, Alfred P Sloan reorganized General Motors into a kind of “centralized decentralization” in which policy was made by one group of people – a board, for example, and implemented by another. The one never created policies, and the other never put them into practice. Polices became plans which were then passed down the organizational chain of authority, all the way to the middle managers who then determined who did what among their direct reports.

Then it all changed. In the 1980s, “no job for life” vanished. Suddenly, employees found that their jobs weren’t permanent. Managers in general were cut from the hierarchy, and organization charts flattened. The result was that the managers who remained had even more on their plate than before, but fewer people to delegate the work to. As a result, they felt squeezed from both the top and the bottom.

Why it will get worse

The problem persists to this day, and there’s no sign that it will get any better. In fact, the worst of all possible worlds is about to get worse still. That’s because becoming a middle manager lacks the draw that it once had.

Those who would normally be expected to aspire to such a position –  who have seen the diminishing space between the rock and a hard place you occupy – have decided that they don’t want to be in it. What that means is that if you’re a middle manager, then there may not be a replacement available for you when you seek promotion.

There’s another side to this. Let’s say that you’ve decided that it’s all too much and that you’d rather take a pay cut so that you can get out of middle management. You may find that this isn’t possible either. Oddly enough, it’s for exactly the same reason. All of those positions are already filled with people who are content to stay where they are.

So what can you do?

Act

If you get nothing else out of this article, then get this: You must do something. You cannot fail to act. What would doing nothing look like? It would be the status quo. It would be doing what you’ve always done; what has always worked for you.

Middle managers have a reputation for “pushing paper,” for example. Some push it from the left side of their desk to the right, or from the right to the left. Others merely push it onto someone else’s desk. This has all the appearance of work because it takes time to do; but in the end very little is accomplished that is what you could call managerial. It doesn’t take a manager to deliver papers.

If the status quo is for you and you don’t want to “rock the boat,” then you will become obsolete. It may happen quickly or more slowly; but sooner or later, what your organization needs from you will change enough that either you will have to move with it or from it.

Create value

The middle managers that organizations need today are those who can identify ways to create enormous value, and who can enable others to do the same. That means that you need to figure out how to do it. You have to determine what is your own unique value – value that only you can give. Call it a competitive value, if you like. It’s value that you can provide better than anyone else. When you can do that, then you’ll control your agenda. You won’t be shackled with all manner of meaningless activities that swallow up your time and endanger your career.

Can you see how important this is? A typical middle manager gets “dumped on.” Others “call the shots.” He or she is pressured from all sides. Middle managers who thrive, on the other hand, contribute so much value to their organizations that no one dares to do that. That’s because to do so would diminish their ability to provide the extraordinary value that only they can give.

You must determine what value is lacking in your organization. Maybe it’s in the products it makes, the services it provides, or the processes behind the scenes.

Maybe it’s in the way that people are managed. What’s the morale like? Are people happy, or are they stressed and bored?

Make it your personal mission to figure out where you can contribute the most value, and then deliver it by the barrel-full. When you do that, then the space between that rock and your hard place will get bigger, and you’ll begin to thrive.

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