Middle Management is…

A few weeks ago I posted about giving employees their due. Time to move up the food chain a bit. Let’s go to middle management, alternately seen as bottlenecks, conduits, or a*#holes depending on your position beside, below or above them.

Since Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the end all for defining what we don’t want to ourselves, let’s see what they have to say.

Middle management is a layer of management in an organization whose primary job responsibility is to monitor activities of subordinates while reporting to upper management.”

Wow, that doesn’t sound like something you’d study at Harvard! Sounds more like something the secret police would have been doing in any Middle Eastern dictatorship currently in the throes of being overthrown.

Lest you doubt, it only takes a few word substitutions to make my point:

“The Secret Police is a layer of control in a government whose primary job responsibility is to monitor activities of its citizens while reporting to the king/president for life.”

Middle management or secret police?

It’s hard to believe no one from middle management has caught this “big-bro-like” wiki entry so far. Maybe it’s because they’re too busy monitoring subordinates and reporting on their activities. Or maybe it’s because they’re busting their chops and other parts of their body trying to motivate staff, oversee budgets, and communicate increasingly complex information with fewer people, less money and time, and often incomplete or even incoherent data. Yet, US companies have been hedging much of their success on the ability of this mid-level to do it all, while the people they manage are wondering why they can’t.

Over the past year, I’ve managed communication effectiveness projects for some of the best known companies in the US and two themes have been most prevalent:

  • middle management is seen as being ineffective communicators, and
  • employees want to get more information from their middle managers.

This is quite a dilemma – it’s almost like saying my elected officials are doing a crappy job, but I want them to be better at telling me that. Oh wait…

About twenty some odd years ago, upper management decided computers and automated business decision software would make middle management obsolete. Then the economic downturn of the late 80s became a well-timed trigger for massive lay-offs of middle managers. What upper management failed to realize is that while computers are good at managing data, they’re really bad at managing people. Guess what, they still are. But it’s as if no one above the equivalent of a staff sergeant pay grade in the Army remembers that. Just look at how many mid-level managers lost their jobs in this last go round!

So what’s the solution? Match the tools with the expectation. If you want mid-level managers to be good to great mid-level managers, give them the management, communication and financial tools to do that. Reward them for using them, instead of punishing them for not having the time to ask where to find them.

More importantly, change up that definition to something more compelling and less “big bro-like.” How about this: “Middle managers are role models to their employees.”

Anything more than that and you might as well head to the Middle East.

-Aaron Heinrich

  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)