Last updated: February 24, 2020
The word “middle” is inseparably connected with the word average. Take the following example: if a stockbroker has middling stock knowledge, he’s not the guy you want handling your portfolio. The same stigma of mediocrity applies to middle managers, partly because of etymology. According to the textbook definition, middle managers are workers who oversee lower-level employees. They form a bridge between employees and top management; they are in the middle of these two groups.
Yet, middle management means so much more than that in today’s work culture. Middle managers are often looked at as middling managers. They are often parodied in shows like The Office. Also, the idea of a flat organization, one without any middle managers, is quite popular in trendy business circles. It’s fair to wonder if the middle manager is losing relevance in the modern business world. In truth, middle managers are still as vital as ever. Here are six reasons why that is the case.
Middle managers are pivotal morale-boosters
Is positive recognition really so important at work? It’s a fair question. Naturally, people crave approval from their lover, their children, and even their friends. When work is involved, the answer is not as intuitive. Aren’t people more callous in a business, work-like setting? Yet, it turns out that people want approbation from their bosses. According to a study funded by Gallup, “Employees who have supportive supervisors are 67% more engaged.” And naturally engaged employees are better, more productive, employees.
Middle managers, particularly in a large company, are able to offer feedback that is impractical in a flat organization. While it’s true most CEO’s would love to acknowledge John for taking night classes to master Adobe Photoshop, this kind of intel often slips between the cracks at larger companies. CEO’s, by nature of the job, are focused on the forest, not the trees. That’s where middle managers come in. They are able to proffer positive feedback to employees; this is something key for company-wide morale.
Middle managers reduce attrition
There is a famous HR saying, “people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.” This is not just an idle saying, an idea floating around the workplace, living at the water cooler; it’s an uncontested fact. According to a recent Gallup poll, “50% of Americans have left their job to get away from their manager at some point in their career.” Management is far more important than many businesses realize. People are emotional creatures. Naturally, people like to think of themselves as strictly rational, but that’s not the case. Jobs aren’t are all about the tangibles: the pay, the vacation days, the health benefits. Jobs are also about the intangibles: liking your coworkers (and managers), feeling like you’re making a difference, and feeling like you’re improving your craft. Great middle management can provide these intangibles, leading to more satisfaction at work and less turnover.
Middle managers hone strategy
Middle managers, whether they appreciate the analogy or not, are bridges. They connect upper management with lower-level employees. They connect sweeping strategies with operational realities. This is an invaluable connection.
Sometimes upper-management just doesn’t understand the situation on the ground. For example, take the idea of content creation. Let’s say a health care company sees their competitors are running company blogs and getting sizable traffic. They hire a writer to make content for them, so they can get traffic too. Yet their budget (one writer), only permits them to produce (and promote) a limited amount of high-quality content, which in turn produces limited results. Middle managers can suggest alternative strategies such as increasing the budget, using the resources for content curation, or outsourcing writing to a content agency. Sometimes lower-level employees, particularly new hires, find it challenging to bring these ideas up to the company.
Middle managers give employees something to aspire for
People leave jobs, but stick around for careers. Sciencemag points out, “Often an employee leaves because she can’t see what her career path looks like.” The problem of a dead-end career is exacerbated in flat organizations, or places without a clear path to advancement. Middle management jobs are a step up from entry-level positions, and people like moving up. No one wants to feel like a hamster stuck on the career treadmill. Just by existing, middle managers motivate employees who have dreams of climbing the corporate ladder.
Middle managers tolerate failure (the good kind)
What’s the good kind of failure? It’s learning from your mistakes, never giving up, using failure as a launch point for success. Take Thomas Edison, who tried 10,000 combinations before he found the winning formula for the light bulb. Managers.org points out that large companies like Google say, “Prototyping and pivoting is the norm [in our company].” Effective middle managers act as a good cop, a barrier between upper management and workers. Workers are afraid of messing up, but businesses need them to innovate, a process that is touch and go. Companies like Google innovate incredibly quickly (quickly being even more impressive in the lightning fast world of tech), because they have middle managers that make employees feel comfortable, managers that erase their fear of mistakes.
Middle managers make it safe to raise objections
Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. This famous line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is in reference to the ocean, when the thirsty sailor saw water all around his ship, but was oh so far away from quenching his thirst. The same concept applies to ideas for improving a business. Many times in a flat organization, people won’t share their strong idea, even if it would help their company. A business may have a cornucopia of ways to improve, but no real access to them, just like the sailor who was so far from water (even though seawater was close).
Are middle managers secret super heroes?
Middle managers get a bad rap. Sure, some are like the guys from The Office. But as a whole, they are underappreciated, much like Bulls great Scottie Pippen. What underappreciated icon would you compare middle managers to?