Stuck in the Middle (Management): Navigating Challenges and Solutions

Stuck in the Middle (Management): Navigating Challenges and Solutions

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
14 minute read

Middle Management is a curious invention of the 20th-century corporate world. Curious in that individuals in those roles are expected to simultaneously be able to think, analyze, plan, and act at both the strategic and operational levels. They need to be, at various times, coaches, financial experts, technical gurus, communicators, talent managers, and performance drivers. They are often called upon to manage or oversee large-scale projects in addition to their normal duties and responsibilities.   

They report to top leadership and manage managers, supervisors, and/or individual contributors. They are asked to translate, communicate and ensure the implementation of company objectives, initiatives, policies, and directives. They neither set strategy nor directly oversee the execution, and as a result, need to rely upon the wisdom of their superiors and the focus and tenacity of their subordinates.  

They are stuck in the middle, between acting as a deferential and humble subordinate to top leadership while demonstrating confidence and control to those who report up to them. They conduct the work that goes on between the policymakers at the top and the target populations acting in concert with those below.

The work (and burdens) of a middle manager

The role of middle management is to translate those strategies and policies into digestible and actionable directions for the employees who are asked to both contribute and comply. As managers-of-managers, they make sure that the efforts of their teams are in line with the vision of top leadership while understanding, addressing, and removing the roadblocks that those teams face.   

And while they’re at it, they still need to conduct daily tasks that enable the meeting of corporate objectives and initiatives, including:

Defining and approving staffing requirements

Managing contractors and contracts

Hiring and onboarding new employees

Setting and distributing individual and team goals and workloads

Managing performance, discipline and terminations

Submitting and managing budgets

Communicating direction, progress, results, policies, practices and procedures

Overseeing and refining work processes 

Coaching, mentoring and providing performance feedback 

Managing strategic or improvement projects 

Acting as a subject matter expert in a functional or technical area

Managing conflict

Creating and sustaining networks – internal and external

Needless to say, middle management offers a unique perspective on most of the employee productivity and organizational performance barriers and challenges that an organization faces – with ears necessarily open to both top leadership and line employees. But it tends to be a heavy burden and comes with a price.

The price being paid

It is no surprise then to see the research telling us that more than any other group or level of employees, middle management experiences higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, low satisfaction, hypertension and even heart disease. Adding the recent impacts of flattening of organizational structures, the pandemic, supply chain issues, and generally poor economic trends on top of the ages-old plight of the middle manager, they are feeling the heat more than ever before. 

They are also leading the great resignation, with more in the middle management ranks leaving, and close to 50% more reporting plans to leave their current employers in the coming year (Fortune 2/8/23).  Combined with the technology sector’s recent organizational delayering and downsizing of thousands of middle managers, the role is clearly under siege, with those who remain looking towards a future of higher manager-to-employee ratios and workloads.

A need for solutions – new as well as trusted

A need for solutions – new as well as trusted

Workplaces and workforces are changing right in front of us, and the old solutions and preferences are no longer addressing the problems at hand. Telling employees that they must come back to work four days per week and expecting compliance is an old solution to the new problem of “I’ve already been working productively without commuting”.  

It is both the burden and blessing of the middle manager to be amid the changes and the need for solutions. The burden is that they operate under powerful leaders and thus need to try to drive change from the middle upwards by offering new solutions. The blessing is that they are in the best position to understand the tension between corporate needs and those of the workforce.  

It’s time to better leverage their position while unburdening them of some of the administration of people, process, and program management. The solutions should be integrated into a package whose elements work together to change the experience of the middle manager while addressing the realities of today’s corporate and business environments. A sampling of the elements for such a solution set includes:

1. Identify the highest priority tasks. 

Review job analyses and descriptions to identify what tasks and activities add the greatest value to the achievement of both business and talent goals and objectives. Assess which competencies are most critical to successful management at each level of the organization. Particularly after an organizational “flattening” or Reductions in Force (RIF) of managers, this exercise should be conducted to help provide guidance to role-holders about how to best spend their time and resources.  

The tasks selected should be assessed against the backdrop of recent and projected talent and business trends – much like when sales goals are increased during times of softened results. In any of these cases, provide guidance as to the prioritization of such tasking – to guide managers when they are balancing competing necessities. And further consider whether some of the lower-level tasks or responsibilities can be pushed down a level further to line managers or employees (or eliminated altogether).

2. Select candidates with the necessary skills and capabilities. 

Managers have a whole host of duties and responsibilities that require wide and varied knowledge, skills, and abilities - from numerical to interpersonal to analytical, from strategic to operational. Careful selection of individuals with the right mix of technical, interaction, planning and political skills is essential and one key element of reducing managerial burnout and turnover. Leading organizations use formal and validated assessments to project each candidate’s future level of success in the role and use those to identify the development-related shortcomings of those selected. Motivation to perform the job is not enough, especially given the unprecedented challenges that middle managers are facing today.

3. Listen to the managers. 

Leverage regular (e.g., annual) surveys, focus groups or listening sessions with middle managers and ask them what gets in the way of their productivity. Through this, insights into common concerns about certain processes or practices (e.g., performance management, subcontract RFP standards, etc.) can yield opportunities to reduce steps or simplify requirements for faster and/or more effective administrative processing. Further leveraging of such listening programs can be used to raise upper management’s awareness of systemic issues and potential solutions that can both ease the middle manager’s workloads and concerns while addressing drags on employee productivity and effectiveness.

4. Increase managerial discretion.  

Conduct a review of existing policies and procedures to look for opportunities where managers can act without requesting input or consent (e.g., spending approvals needed above a certain threshold, etc.). Understanding where micromanagement is occurring is an important step in relieving bureaucracy that plagues many in middle management.

5. Share responsibilities as a group. 

Certain practices can be made more effective by engaging a group of managers to relieve individuals of the weight of responsibility to “get it right” on their own when making certain types of decisions. A prime example is the use of talent review processes, where managers get together and share feedback and data on each employee within a common grouping and determine relative performance levels/ratings, salary increases, bonus payouts, potential ratings, development options, and next roles, etc. Other examples include the use of managerial team meetings to provide input to corporate strategies, cascade and assign functional/departmental goals, create operating budget requests and distribution decisions, etc.

6. Communicate and reinforce leadership values.  

Provide structure, reminders, and role modeling of expectations of preferred managerial behaviors and standards for reinforcement of what is most important in their roles. Managers need to know and be reminded of what is expected of them to generate consistent and reliable behavior on their part. The use of a leadership competency model in managerial training, performance evaluations, and in succession/career discussions further bolsters the certainty.

7. Hold managers accountable. 

Provide performance and development feedback using objective measures of their success on the most important tasks and behaviors identified above. Leverage regular and/or pulse employee engagement or experience surveys, skip-level sensing sessions, and reporting on hiring, turnover, reason for leaving, transfers in and out, budget performance, project schedule adherence, etc. to assess managerial success. Making such data a core of their regular assessment and coaching drives home the importance of managing people relative to other indices of department or function output, including those related to task, process, project, financial, etc.

8. Eliminate and/or shorten meetings.  

Limit the regular update meetings and reports that managers are required to prepare for and attend, by instead relying on regular and brief “high point” meetings, where the manager shares only the top three issues and accomplishments with his/her leader. Further consider whether the updates are opportunities for micromanagement, and ways that can be avoided.  

Also, consider the use of regular “stand-up” leadership team meetings (in place of traditional staff meetings) where each manager has 3-5 minutes to share information that specifically concerns information needed for collaboration and coordination with peer managers. Individual follow-up meetings can be created when issues require more than one manager to coordinate action. These can help reduce both unnecessary sharing and oversharing of accomplishments with peers.

9. Reduce handoffs of administrative duties. 

Reconsider the administrative workflows that managers handle that can be automated or handled by support organizations. When attempting to operate a lean support organization (Finance, HR, Procurement, Security) work has been historically shifted to managers under the heading of “self-service”. The resulting issue is that the administrative work burden has increased on managers. Consider the adoption of technologies such as “bots” and APIs that can perform the repetitive aspects of administrative tasks in middle management. Examples of applications include the completion of fields in forms (e.g., employee core data into performance evaluations, transfer forms, job applicant responses), automatically populated FAQs, embedded job aids (e.g., preparing for an employee coaching session), etc. Alternatively, change the resume review process to include automatic presentation of only the 10 top candidates to the hiring manager, or automated presentation of development activities that are matched to each employee’s unique performance deficits or career aspirations, etc.

10. Provide job aids.  

Help managers better communicate policy, practice, or program information with a standardized managerial knowledge portal that includes communication plans, tools (e.g., PowerPoint decks, email text, FAQs). Embed guidance on existing or new processes into the talent management or HR information system, such that the guidance is available at their fingertips while they are performing the task. Provide both mobile and desktop apps that have quick use guides to support common communications activities, such as performance check-in sessions (questions to ask, questions the employee will be similarly guided to ask), disciplinary action meetings, interview questions, vendor selection guidelines and questions, etc.

11. Offer training and development options that meet their needs. 

Reduce the need for long-drawn-out managerial training programs by limiting the number of formal learning sessions. Create a continuous learning and development environment that is best suited to the time and task demands that middle managers face. Consider offering a “signature” course attended by newly promoted or hired managers that covers the major topics related to their primary tasks and responsibilities, the managerial culture to which the company aspires, providing exposure to top leaders, and activities and exercises that help participants start to build a support and collaboration network. 

Augment that classroom experience with such activities as individual onboarding coaching and assignment of a formal mentor on the senior leadership team. Further the ongoing nature of development that leverages the criticality of peer relationships and strategic thinking/action through the offering of group coaching engagements, mastermind groups and strategic action learning projects. By having them learn and develop with their peers, all managers will have access to insights and people who are supportive of their journey as a leader.

Career mobility - important development opportunity

An important development opportunity

As we’ve seen, middle management is a tough job to fill while maintaining one’s engagement and motivation (and mental health) for a long period of time. As a result, it is incumbent upon the company to manage this situation, with logical and constructive practices that leverage the skills of carefully selected individuals while providing a needed break from the myriad of challenges that they face.  

A formalized employee mobility strategy can offer relief for the organization and the managers. Formal rotations from managers to other types of roles, such as individual contributors make the most sense and can be managed in a succession management or similar process. Much like how large consulting and accounting firms guide the careers of their partners, movement between different functions and types of roles not only rounds the person out but provides relief from some of the more intensive or stressful roles.  

This solution requires the creation of career paths that encourage people to move between managerial and non-managerial paths, from people management to program management, from program management to expert contributor, and then back again. For example, a pathway from Director of Systems Engineering to a Principal Investigator to a Project Manager, and then on to a Vice-President of Engineering Operations would provide both a needed break, development from three very different types of roles, and then on to a promotion for which the individual is well-prepared. Further consideration should be given to limiting the time in managerial roles to three years, with compensation and classification systems (in a job architecture) supporting such movement without loss of status, salary, or bonus.  

At the end of the day, it is imperative that companies provide continuous, systemic and programmatic support to middle managers throughout their tenure for the company to maintain consistency across management and time. A mix of selection, prioritized tasking, two-way communications, streamlined administrative responsibilities, accountability measures, development, and job support mechanisms can be packaged together for a structured and constructive handling of a long-standing challenge for organizations and their leaders alike.

Leverage Wowledge practices and tools

Relevant Practices & Tools

Core Leadership Development Practices to Define and Structure Leadership Capabilities. >

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Defining an Impactful Vision of the Leadership Strategy and Brand. >

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Engaging External Executive Coaches and Internal Mentors to Build Leadership Capability. >

When creating a coaching and mentoring capability focused on leaders, best practices suggest starting with the use of experienced external coaches to focus the initial applications of this... more »

Defining Career Lattices to Define Robust Lateral and Vertical Mobility. >

The ability to enable the movement of employees proactively and strategically from role to role at the leadership, professional, and operational levels is a key flexibility that advanced career... more »

The Manager Coaching Feedback Survey Tool: Define and Apply Basic Questions for Employees Providing Feedback on Managers' Coaching Prowess. >

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