Much-maligned middle management can provide challenge, job satisfaction

  • Sunday, March 23, 2008 9:08pm

If middle management were running for elective office, the campaign consultants and pollsters would be concerned about the “negatives” — the things that are perceived to be wrong with a candidate.

When talking about middle management with the workers who man the front lines in business today, the same phrases keep turning up. “Thankless job,” “spends her life in meetings” and “tool of the suits” are currently popular. When the conversation turns more specifically to a worker’s individual manager, the comments often run to “She’s always under a lot of stress” or “… Great guy, but never here when I need him.”

What is surprising is that many of the same words and phrases show up when you talk with middle managers themselves. Middle managers have been the beneficiary of a lot of attention from cost cutters, academic meddlers, organizational consultants, motivational speakers and their own top executives. The result, as you might expect, is that many middle managers — maybe even most of them, according to some surveys — are pretty discouraged.

Much of this discouragement is the predictable result of years of viewing middle management as synonymous with bureaucracy — a wasteful cost rather than a means to achieve results. For decades, both the well intentioned and the charlatans used this view, which equated middle management to bureaucracy, to champion such things as “the flat organization,” “self-managing teams” and other mechanisms designed to eliminate middle management and its expense.

Alternative views were hard to find. It seemed as if every new management theory that popped up owed a genetic debt to Anthony Perkins and his “Bates Motel School of Management” skit done on “Saturday Night Live.” For Perkins, no matter what the initial problem was — the room rate, a dripping faucet — things always ended up with his taking a carving knife to the customer.

In the same way, management consultants seemed to believe that no matter what ailed a business, cutting middle management would fix it.

For a lot of businesses, it was probably just the right thing to do. Many companies trying to cope with technical and market changes had over-solved problems by adding more layers of middle management. These often ended up simply getting in each other’s way.

But, like many things, the cutbacks in middle management were done to excess, and the result was that becoming a middle manager today is not as appealing as it once was. When businesses eliminated middle-management positions they rarely made equivalent cuts in responsibilities. So, the same work had to be done by fewer people.

Run through this cycle a few times and you end up with a group of seriously overworked middle managers running pretty close to desperation. Worse, they are straining to do a job that upper management and their consultants still view as a wasteful cost rather than a productive asset.

The question is, then, should you seek out a middle-management job or accept one if offered as a promotion?

The answer would depend on the circumstances, of course, but it is probably yes — but only after you have thought it through.

As a promotion, it will mean more money, and that is always welcome. Still, there are some realities to middle-management jobs that you should be prepared for. While each individual job has its own features, there are three general characteristics that should be key factors in your decision:

– Management is about getting work done through other people. If you don’t like dealing with people, and cannot accept their strengths and limitations, don’t take a middle-management job.

– Management responsibilities are typically not spelled out as precisely as those for other jobs. You are expected to recognize issues and take responsibility for dealing with them — without getting everybody’s feathers ruffled. If you see that as a frustration rather than a challenge, you are not likely to find a management job satisfying.

– Middle management is not often the object of a lot of praise or motivational reinforcement. If you are the kind of person who needs constant approval from colleagues or superiors, middle management will not be a comfortable place for you.

On the positive side, middle management is where the action is, certainly. It is where ideas are translated into reality, where productivity is nurtured and where hard work is valued and recognized. It is a tough environment, with more demands on your time and skill than you can satisfy.

But if you can take pleasure and pride in the accomplishments of others, and can understand how to build a team that thoroughly enjoys its high level of performance, a middle-management job will provide you with a level of challenge and satisfaction that few jobs can offer.

James McCusker, a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant, writes “Your Business” in The Herald each Sunday. He can be reached by sending e-mail to

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