The middle manager position is one of the most important and most challenging positions within an organization. Research shows that the most successful companies have effective middle managers over the long term. However, despite their vital impact on organizational performance, they are often neglected and subjected to complex demands, impacting their ability to be successful.
In this blog, we discuss the dilemma that middle managers face as they must answer to both requests from above in the hierarchy as well as requests from below. We finish with a discussion on how upper management, board members and small business owners can support their middle managers to be successful.
What are Middle Managers?
Middle managers act as a bridge between upper management and frontline employees. They oversee the work of lower-level managers, coordinate activities, communicate objectives and ensure operational efficiency. They oversee the facilitation of any changes needed in an organization and creating an effective working environment. In for-profit organizations individuals may have job titles such as general manager, regional manager, department or functional manager. In non-profits, we most often see this reflected in the executive director position.
The Dilemma that Middle Managers Face
Middle managers are often caught between inconsistent demands from superiors and subordinates, leading to increased role conflict. They occupy multiple roles at once, including leader and direct report. In many cases, the norms and expectations associated with being a leader, are incompatible with the norms and expectations associated with being a direct report.
Middle managers must constantly adapt to changing power dynamics in the different roles that they occupy. When interacting with superiors, they naturally adopt a more deferential, low-power behaviour style. Meanwhile, when interacting with direct reports, we see middle managers adopt a more assertive, high-power behavioural style. Failure to conform to these role-based expectations can lead to social conflicts and confusion among managers and their teams.
This dilemma is the result of inadequate information, failure of leaders to make performance expectations of middle managers clear, and conflicting pressures regarding behaviour from direct reports and supervisors.
These dynamics lead to impacts on both the individual middle manager as well as the overall organization.
Reduced effectiveness of middle managers and their teams
High turnover rates
How You Can Help
Upper management, board members and owners have an important role in helping middle managers navigate these difficult dynamics. Several ways to help include:
1. Flatten your organizational hierarchy
By embracing a more egalitarian organizational structure and culture, organizations can help their middle managers by reducing the behavioural discrepancies between high and low power roles.
2. Avoid micromanaging
Micromanaging of middle managers creates more instances of unnecessary role switching. Instead, provide strategic input and then allow them the freedom to implement those strategies.
3. Get clear on expectations
Be clear with your middle managers on what your expectations are in terms of their leadership, decision making and goals.
4. Listen to your middle managers
Check in regularly and encourage them to share about their experience of role conflict. You may be surprised by their insight and perspective on their role as well as the overall organization. Try this check-in guide.
5. Empower your middle managers
Train your managers on the skills they need to effectively navigate relationships with supervisors and direct reports, including conflict management and communication skills. Contact us for training opportunities here.
Rahim, M. A. (2015). Managing Conflict in Organizations. Greenwood. https://doi.org/10.1604/9780313000485
Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting. (2017, March 22). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-being-a-middle-manager-is-so-exhausting