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Stretched Thin

The pervasive, unflattering image of middle managers as unnecessary bureaucrats belies the essential role they play in organizations.

​Middle managers have long spoken out about the difficulties they have in trying to communicate and enforce directives from company leaders without having a say in or knowing the full reasoning behind those executive decisions.

"They are often the voice of the top layer toward the lower levels, so they must convince people at the bottom to do things decided at the top, often without full information," says Zahira Jaser, associate professor of organizational behavior and director of the MBA program at the University of Sussex Business School in Brighton, U.K. 

The pervasive, unflattering image of the middle manager prevalent in today's corporate—and popular—culture doesn't help matters. A prime example is the fictional character Michael Scott, a middle manager at a paper company on the popular sitcom "The Office." Scott's bumbling leadership is most often the source of the comic dysfunction that plagues his Pennsylvania-based team. The negative attributes of middle managers embodied by Scott, played by Steve Carell, have been reinforced recently by some notable company leaders when their revenues sank.

For instance, after Meta and ­Twitter (now called X) made headlines by laying off large numbers of workers this year, their respective CEOs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, took to social media to characterize middle managers as drags on their companies and to boast about thinning their ranks. 

While Musk commented that Twitter "seems to have 10 managers for every employee who writes code," Zuckerberg was quoted as saying, "I don't think you want a management structure that's just managers managing managers, managing managers, managing managers, managing the people who are doing the work."

Jaser says this impression of midlevel managers as hapless enforcers of unnecessarily multilayered company structures can be disillusioning for managers who would prefer to inspire and guide their teams, were it not for all the other duties assigned to them. 

"In our culture, we think of ­leaders as heroes," says Jaser, who has interviewed hundreds of middle managers for her research. "Often, our imagination of middle managers is that they are mediocre. This is not right. If top leaders think of ­middle managers as mediocre, they are quick to get rid of them."

Workplace experts who have studied middle managers say that eliminating midlevel positions to increase productivity and profit is not the answer. There's a simpler solution: Happy managers lead to happy workers, which should lead to higher productivity, which hopefully leads to higher profits. Experts say the way many companies are structured is behind long-perpetuated middle-­manager stereotypes and pressures.

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Help Wanted

The plight of the middle manager—the multiple demands, never-ending meetings, administrative overload and lack of company support to help navigate those challenges—is a ­familiar story. But a McKinsey & Company global survey of middle managers, released in March 2023, paints a picture that's far more ­draining and soul-crushing than business leaders may have suspected.

The survey asked midlevel managers about their experiences at work. Only 20 percent said their organizations help them be successful people managers, and 42 percent said that either their organizations don't help, or they are unsure if they do.

"Middle managers are absolutely critical to an organization's success," says Emily Field, a McKinsey partner and co-author of the survey report. "It's time to clean-sheet that role of the middle manager. What do they need? What are they uniquely suited to do, versus others in the organization? How do we remove the things that are burdening them?"

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Post-Pandemic Challenges

"The last few years have been a time of macroeconomic and sociopolitical uncertainty," says Katherine Ullman, an independent consultant in Cambridge, Mass. "Companies … have downsized, hired and downsized again. Middle managers have not only themselves, but their teams' livelihood to think about. This … pressure can create a workforce that is hard to motivate."

Meanwhile, Ullman says, attracting and retaining talent in a tight labor market, the growing demands of younger workers, new dynamics between employees and employers, and the rise of pandemic-induced remote work have put additional pressure on middle managers.

"The effects of remote work on communication were in some cases larger for managers," she says. "The switch to remote work caused larger increases [of work] for managers than individual contributors in [the number of] IMs sent, emails sent and unscheduled video/audio call hours."

Denise Hamilton, an inclusion strategist, CEO and founder of multimedia platform WatchHerWork, acknowledges these post-pandemic challenges in a December 2022 MIT Sloan Management Review article titled, "Middle Managers Are Exhausted. Top Teams Need to Listen." 

"[T]hese challenges have required managers to stretch beyond the leadership skill sets that many possess or were trained for," Hamilton writes. "For example, managers used to be trained to avoid asking their employees questions about their personal lives … Now, suddenly, managers are being told that they must engage in deep conversations with their employees in order to adjust for their unique work-life challenges. These changes in expectations can add additional stress for managers." 

Performance Review Pitfalls

Unfortunately, the remarkable ­cultural and economic changes that have dominated life in the U.S. over the past few years have joined with traditional management headaches to magnify the pressures that have long plagued middle managers. 

For example, despite the lip service many companies have paid to injecting experimentation and collaboration into employee performance reviews, most remain wedded to stale, periodic evaluations, says Smaranda Boros, associate professor of intercultural management and organizational behavior at Belgium's Vlerick Business School. Many companies have moved from annual reviews to more frequent—even bimonthly—standardized check-ins.

"We talk about moving toward agile forms of organization and cultures of experimentation," Boros says, "while we evaluate [workers] in the same way we always have." For example, despite increased talk about the importance of soft skills, many companies don't look at them when evaluating employees. 


"[Few] of these things are [measured] anywhere in our [performance review] processes," Boros says. This can constrain managers, who often find reviews tedious—even useless—if the process allows them to "grade" workers only on tasks and goals that ignore a large part of their contributions, she adds.

Boros points to the process for employee appraisals adopted by a Netherlands-based multinational company as a model for other organizations. Its middle managers told their supervisors that the employee appraisal process wasn't working for them or their teams. So the company began using appraisals that incorporate the more "personal" aspects of a worker's performance. 

"[They] were discussing … where they are at in their lives, and less about ticking boxes in the appraisal," Boros says. "The conversations they're having comprise all those things we say are missing in appraisals—the atmosphere for your team, the behaviors you want to encourage, how you relate to other team members."

What HR Can Do to Help

Many employees are promoted to management positions due to the quality of their work, not necessarily because of their management prowess. Yet few receive the instruction or tools they need to succeed. As a result, new ­managers typically face a steep learning curve before they become effective leaders. HR should play an active role in giving both new and experienced managers the resources they need to support their teams by:

  • Asking. Be proactive in regularly asking managers how they and their teams are doing and if they need any assistance. Don’t assume that managers will come to you with problems: They may feel that, as ­managers, they should have all the answers themselves. 

  • Listening. When you ask managers if they need help, be prepared for them to answer. Lend an empathetic ear when managers vent their frustrations, and help them determine the root causes of their problems. Work with managers to develop potential solutions, and coach them through the process of resolving any issues.

  • Sharing. Draw on your experiences in HR to proactively share with struggling managers ideas about behaviors and practices you’ve seen work in the past. As the people in charge of their teams, managers may be reluctant to ask questions about topics they feel they should already know. 

  • Supporting. Offering struggling managers resources on leadership such as books, classes and training is important. But not much can take the place of putting them in contact with people who’ve been there ­before. Seek out potential mentors for managers who can share what has and has not worked for them in the past.

  • Giving constructive feedback. When managers ask for feedback, ­remember that as a general rule, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. If you’re honest about areas for improvement and offer practical solutions, managers will be more likely to consider your suggestions.

  • Just being there. If you sense a manager is struggling, unhappy or ­perhaps about to quit, reach out and let them know you’re there to help. By serving as a sounding board, you can help managers vent and ­identify potential solutions. —D.W.

Piling On

Unnecessarily cumbersome administrative tasks such as employee evaluations take up significant real estate in managers' already constrained calendars. Middle manager respondents to McKinsey's survey say they spend 49 percent of their time on non­managerial work. Meanwhile, less than a third of their time (28 percent) is spent on talent and people management—purportedly their principal function. Of the many tasks that distract middle managers from actually managing their teams, organizational bureaucracy is cited most often.

Field, co-author of the book Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023), says another often-unnecessary bureaucratic task that eats up managers' time is the elaborate processes some companies require for managers to approve employee expense reports. 

"Do [middle managers] need to be the people checking expenses?" Field asks. "Or are there systems that allow the middle manager to handle only a few expense reports?"

Field once worked with an organization where middle managers had to approve a new company credit card if a subordinate lost theirs. The approval had to go through several senior levels and took a lot of time. They didn't think to question the process and whether such time-consuming work was necessary, she says. 

Referring to findings from the McKinsey study, Field asks, "How do we perceive the role of the manager when we see middle managers spending 18 percent of their time—nearly a day a week—on administrative work?" 

Excessive, unnecessary or redundant administrative tasks can make midlevel managers feel they aren't trusted enough to go beyond basic management tasks and be a force for real change, Field says. When asked how they most prefer to be rewarded for a job well done at work, respondents in McKinsey's survey said they want increased autonomy—more so than bonuses, raises or promotions.

Meetings are another longtime frustration for middle managers. Although companies have known for years that middle managers can increase team productivity by cutting back on the number and length of meetings, regular, long meetings ­persist, further sapping managers' time and energy.

Ullman says the tendency to hold multiple regular meetings is due in part to unquestioned company ­organization and tradition. "Meetings are [about] organizational layers and functional divisions," she says, explaining that meetings have become the fallback way for people in separate divisions to communicate with one another.

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Outdated Structures

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Change Management, researchers compared the rate of technological change at companies over the past 70 years with the rate of organizational change that companies made over that same period. While the former increased exponentially, the latter remained almost flat, indicating the structure of middle management has not kept pace with significant changes in the workplace.

Experts say changes to company structures must be "radical" to make a difference for managers—but this process requires a great deal of reflection, observation, research, data collection, expertise and patience—and often, a lot of money. It can be tempting for busy executives, Field says, to retreat to their comfort zones and keep companies organized as they long have been—arranged by levels of seniority, with top-down directives, siloed departments and managers pigeonholed into the same roles with the same tasks they've always had. She adds that for executives, spending money on a restructuring they're not sure will relieve middle managers in the first place can keep them permanently stuck in their traditional models.


But if updating company structure is the solution to middle-manager misery, Field says, executives must first be able to recognize that their company structure may be to blame for their market shortcomings—not the middle managers tasked with upholding that structure. 

If higher-ups can be convinced to overhaul their structures, Ullman says, then such an overhaul must start with more and better communication between middle managers and the people who lead them. Because midlevel managers have the ear of those at both the top and the bottom ranks of a company, executives would be foolish to not solicit their input.

"Middle managers are in an excellent position to offer insights and advice on solutions," Ullman says. "There needs to be clear alignment between middle managers and leaders on what it means for managers to be successful. [Leaders must] ask managers what they believe gets in the way of their success and try to find a solution."

For example, if managers are navigating too many employee emotional crises, then HR should provide better mental health services, Ullman says. And if they find themselves in too many low-value meetings, the organization should conduct an audit of all meetings to decide which are worth keeping.

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Progress on the Front Lines 

WorkJam CEO Steven Kramer says he does see middle-manager workloads easing among front-line workers. These are not employees who sit at desks—the focus of the McKinsey study—but rather those interacting with people at restaurants, distribution centers, retail stores, manufacturing plants, warehouses and hospitals.

Leaders in these industries, Kramer says, are so slammed by the labor crunch, middle-manager resignations and new consumer demands for speed, knowledge and quality that they "are all trying to remove the manager burden because they need those managers to run more efficient and productive businesses."

For example, Kramer—whose company designs programs to relieve administrative workloads for front-line employers—sees more executives getting serious about giving their managers the technology, training and support they need to support workers. This enables managers to have "more time to be on the floor, to coach employees, to be with customers, to actually fulfill their job descriptions," he says.

That commitment to freeing up managers' time so they can actually manage can include technologies that not only allow a team to collectively communicate in one space (think Slack), but also assign workers appropriate tasks based on their digital skills, education, training, expertise, experience and even soft skills.

Such technology can enable employees to log into a common digital space and choose among the tasks a manager has posted. Some programs enable managers to flag posted jobs for specific workers who have the needed skills, while others can guide workers through the certification and training processes required to perform new tasks and advance their careers. 

Kramer says this "democratization of tasks," which he sees being used largely in companies with front-line workers, puts autonomy and power in the hands of workers and relieves managers of having to assign new tasks throughout the day or think too much about who would be best for a given assignment.

Such changes provide another ­benefit for middle managers, Jaser says: When companies recognize the need to reorganize, the role of the middle manager evolves. 

"Very good middle managers have to develop very human skills, such as the ability to connect, influence, explain complexity and understand human dynamics," she says. "If you want to motivate, you need someone who tells [workers] why they shouldn't leave for a competitor. If people burn out … managers are the ones who can provide emotional connection and empathy that you definitely can't get through any algorithm."

Dana Wilkie is a freelance journalist based in Ormond Beach, Fla.