What is middle management, and what role does it play?
When it comes to decision-making and day-to-day operations, there’s plenty of talk about and praise for senior management and lower-level employees. The senior leaders make the tough decisions necessary to ensure the life of the business, and the employees knock out the hard work to make their stakeholder’s vision a reality.
While both statements are true, they’re missing a crucial cog in the wheel: the role of middle management.
What is middle management?
It refers to the managerial positions that fall underneath top-level management (think CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, etc.) but are above regular employees. They’re the unsung heroes of management, as they serve an extremely important role in organizational structure.
Department managers, store managers, and regional directors are all pivotal for ensuring employees’ well-being, productivity, and job satisfaction, enforcing company culture, and assisting with change management. Research shows that investing in middle management pays off, as companies with top-performing middle managers see better financial outcomes.
Being a middle manager is no walk in the park, as the job comes with no shortage of challenges and potential conflicts. According to a survey by McKinsey & Company, most middle managers spend the majority of their time dealing with cumbersome administrative tasks and other forms of nonmanagerial work.
That’s a shame, as your middle managers are one of your strongest assets for improving virtually every aspect of your organization, from employee engagement to productivity and beyond.
Read on to learn more about middle management, as well as how to successfully invest in your middle managers.
Understanding the role of middle management
There are a few levels of management, with upper management consisting of C-suite positions like CEO, CFO, and CIO. Beneath upper management lies middle management, stuck smack dab in the middle of senior leadership and non-management employees.
Middle managers tend to be in charge of specific teams, departments, and branches within an organization.
In a typical organization, the chain of command would look something like this:
C-suite executives at the top
Middle management reports to C-suite
Baseline employees report to middle management
Middle managers serve as a crucial buffer between upper management and regular team members, which especially comes in handy for things like change management.
For example, while it’s easy for senior leaders to visualize the big picture, it’s not as easy for them to implement change on the front lines. They rarely get the chance to touch base with most employees, so it’s next to impossible for them to implement change initiatives.
Middle managers, on the other hand, are constantly interacting with employees, making them the perfect choice for championing change at all levels of the organization.
Department managers are also vital for performance management, as they closely monitor the performance of their direct reports every single day. That’s immensely important for maintaining high levels of productivity and engagement, which is necessary for the survival of any organization.
Middle managers are also there to fight back against burnout in their employees. By closely monitoring their team and engaging in regular check-ins, they can ensure that their employees maintain an ideal work-life balance.
Common tasks and responsibilities of middle managers
Ideally, middle managers should spend the majority of their time fostering talent and managing employees. Yet, as shared previously, a shocking number of middle managers spend over half their time on time-consuming administrative tasks.
If you want your organization to fire on all cylinders, delegate admin work to anyone besides your department managers. That way, they’ll have plenty of time to take care of their direct reports.
Here’s a look at some of the most common tasks and responsibilities for middle managers:
Empowering employees by rewarding their successes and encouraging them to do their best
Engaging in regular check-ins with direct reports
Translating top-level strategies into day-to-day tasks and policies
Keeping an eye on people metrics like retention, burnout, and employee engagement
Assigning work tasks and monitoring their progress
Ensuring employees meet crucial deadlines
Developing workflows for specific departments, teams, or branches
Aiding with a top-down approach to implementing change
Ensuring employees stay compliant with human resources guidelines
Being present and available during the workday if employees have questions or need help
As you can see, middle managers have quite a bit on their plate, even when only focusing on managerial tasks.
Essential skills for middle managers
If middle managers want to find success, they need to possess certain leadership skills, such as:
Verbal and nonverbal communication
Proficiency with project management and spreadsheet software
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Attention to detail
Delegating tasks is an especially difficult skill to master for new middle managers.
Why is that?
It’s because before being a manager, they were likely used to handling everything themselves, so having to delegate is something they’ve never had to do before.
Beyond that, new managers may feel awkward or uncomfortable telling others what to do at first. As a result, they wind up trying to tackle way too much work themselves, which only leads to burnout.
One of the healthiest things a new department or branch manager can realize is they can’t do it all. Once they reach this point, it becomes far easier to delegate tasks to others – as they’re able to realize its importance.
How does middle management benefit the organization?
Essentially, middle management is the glue that holds an entire organization together. Without it, the connection between upper management and employees is too disparate, which would cause everything to come crashing down.
Senior leaders are too busy to regularly interact with their employees, meaning things like change initiatives and strategic plans would fall by the wayside without a way to clearly communicate them to all personnel. This is why middle managers are your strongest investment, as they will literally make or break your entire operation.
Here’s a look at the top benefits strong middle managers provide.
Boost employee morale
If you’ve only worked for poor managers, then the idea of your boss boosting your morale may seem laughable. However, good managers can inspire and motivate employees like no one or nothing else.
If a manager is empathetic and attentive to their team’s needs, they will positively affect their morale. In particular, a middle manager’s secret morale-boosting weapon is recognition. Recognizing team members’ achievements and milestones will work wonders for their morale, productivity, and performance.
There’s plenty of research to back this up, too.
For instance, employees who receive recognition are 63% more likely to stay at their current job for the next three to six months. Another study found that business productivity rises by 31% whenever employees are happy.
If your middle managers are providing recognition to your team, your employees will stay happy, engaged, and productive.
Implementing change initiatives
While the C-suite devises the necessary changes for a business to survive, they can’t roll them out to each level of the organization. That’s where middle managers come in, as they’re the perfect candidates to make sense of change initiatives for each department.
Bringing about change in an organization is never easy, which is why change management is such a large subject. Implementing a change means getting buy-in from every employee who it affects, which is a tall task.
Resistance is bound to occur at all levels, which is why senior leaders need middle managers to ease the chaos. Department managers can act as change ambassadors, holding meetings with their teams to convince them why the change is necessary.
Whether you’re onboarding a new software or taking a brand new sales approach, your middle managers are the ones in charge of making it happen.
If your branch and department managers aren’t briefed on why the change is necessary, or if they lack the necessary communication skills to obtain buy-in – it’s highly likely that your change initiatives will fail.
This is yet another reason why you should invest in your middle managers, especially if you plan on rolling out significant changes anytime soon.
Influencing and propagating company culture
A strong company culture is a necessity for any successful organization, and middle managers play a huge role in forming and enforcing it. In recent years, a healthy company culture has become a huge priority for job seekers. In fact, 46% of job seekers cite a desirable company culture as an extremely important factor when looking for open positions.
The quality of your company culture also drastically affects your reputation, which will either positively or negatively influence job seekers. If people are abuzz about what a great culture your organization has, top talent will line up to apply for your open positions.
On the other hand, if you’ve garnered a negative reputation online, everyone will avoid your organization like the plague. According to research, 86% of candidates actively avoid applying to companies that have negative reputations, so beware.
If you empower your middle managers to promote the company culture and ensure they’re treating your employees well, you’ll enjoy a favorable reputation.
Provide support for each department
A good manager acts as an advocate for their employees and goes out of their way to ensure each team member has their needs met. This type of personalized support isn’t possible from higher-ups, as they have far too much on their plate.
Middle managers are always there if employees have questions, need to vent, or have urgent issues they need to bring up. If ever there’s a squabble between two coworkers, the middle manager is the one to mediate and resolve it.
Managers are also there to provide necessary accommodations for employees with disabilities. Should an employee have difficulty dealing with things like anxiety and ADHD at work, middle managers can provide accommodations like quiet spaces, special equipment (like noise-canceling headphones), and more frequent breaks.
It’s up to your middle managers to ensure that their teams are set up for success and run like a well-oiled machine.
Technical and general middle managers
There are two distinct types of middle managers: technical managers and general managers.
What’s the difference?
Technical managers boast expertise in a specific area, such as proficiency with software, forecasting, or sales techniques.
General managers don’t have specific expertise but instead possess extremely strong leadership skills that are applicable to all forms of management.
Technical managers tend to be the headier type, often focusing on technical work more than interacting with their team. There are pros and cons involved with this style of management.
On one hand, technical managers help elevate the standards of a department, pushing the envelope in terms of proficiency, productivity, and efficiency. On the other hand, they tend to ignore their staff in favor of utilizing their technical expertise. As a result, employees under technical managers can feel as if they’re not being heard, which can lead to disengagement and burnout.
General managers are more of the jack-of-all-trades, master of none type. They possess staunch leadership skills such as interpersonal communication and conflict mediation. While they aren’t capable of technical wizardry, they do champion their team and provide adequate support.
Therefore, the ideal scenario is to use both a technical and general manager for each department to enjoy the best of both worlds.
These types of managers are a match made in heaven, as their strengths complement each other’s weaknesses.
Top challenges facing middle managers
Being a middle manager is by no means an easy job, as middle managers face all sorts of challenges daily. Their challenges have only grown since the pandemic, as the prevalence of remote work has made it more difficult for managers to keep their employees satisfied and engaged.
Even in offices with no hybrid work, being a middle manager is still a very challenging position, especially if their teams don’t get along very well. Here’s a look at the most pressing challenges facing middle managers, as well as some suggestions for how to overcome them.
Transitioning to a leadership role
Let’s start with arguably the biggest challenge facing new middle managers: transitioning from a base-level employee to a management position. As stated before, most new managers struggle with task delegation at first, as they’re used to knocking everything out by themselves. Besides that, transitioning to a leadership role for the first time can be intimidating and a bit overwhelming at times.
After all, you’re not just accountable for your own work now but for an entire team. Also, you have to interact with executives more than ever before, which is its own source of stress.
In these situations, it really helps to have someone from upper management (or another middle manager) serve as a mentor to new middle managers. It always helps to have someone who’s been through it before, and having a mentor makes transitioning to a manager role a lot easier than it would be without one.
Even if you’re a quick learner, it’ll take at least a few months for you to truly get the hang of things and project ‘manager-level confidence.’
Maintaining a proper chain of communication
Communication must flow properly from the top down for initiatives and projects to get done correctly. Middle managers play a crucial role in this process, which can take some getting used to at first.
Department managers are in charge of assigning tasks to their teams, monitoring their progress, and ensuring proper completion. Besides that, they also have to reiterate strategies and instructions from executives, which is especially important for bringing about change.
It can’t be understated how challenging communication at work can be, even when it doesn’t seem like a big deal. All it takes is one misinterpreted email for an entire project to go off the rails, leading to costly mistakes and lost productivity.
According to a poll conducted by Fierce Inc., 86% of employees believe ineffective communication is the primary reason for workplace failures.
How can middle managers improve the flow of communication at work?
One way is to use more than one communication channel for each task.
Instead of assigning a task to a team member in a project management tool like Asana and forgetting about it, send them an email reminder to go along with it. If you’ve got a meeting coming up, send an email and a message in Slack. This method will reduce the chances of an employee not seeing an important notification.
Another way to improve communication is to hold weekly 1:1 meetings with each team member to bring them up to speed on their tasks and answer any questions they may have.
Burnout is on the rise worldwide, and it’s one of the toughest challenges facing middle managers today. Burnout occurs whenever your employees are overworked (or sometimes underworked), causing them to implode with exhaustion, anxiety, and stress.
It’s a serious condition that can cause negative mental and physical symptoms – including depression and elevated blood pressure. As a middle manager, you’re on the front lines in the war against burnout, so it’s up to you to ensure your employees don’t get burnt out.
Weekly 1:1 meetings are another lifesaver in this regard, as they’re excellent for preventing burnout. During each meeting, directly ask each employee how they’re faring with their current workload.
If they’re overworked, find a coworker who’s not being challenged enough and delegate some of that work to them. If their current role isn’t challenging their skillset, see if there are any opportunities for advancement to keep them engaged.
Final thoughts: What is middle management?
Middle managers are often the unsung heroes of organizations. They’re the ones engaging with base-level employees every single day, parroting C-suite talking points along the way. Your middle managers are your strongest investment, so don’t focus only on executives and employees. If your middle managers are firing on all cylinders, your entire organization will see numerous benefits.