When I Grow Up I Want To Be a Middle Manager


Said no one, ever. Sprinkle in a touch of government – ‘when I grow up I want to be a middle manager for the government’ and even your own child wouldn’t want you to show up on career day.

In a meeting last week, co-workers were joking about being the dreaded ‘middle manager’, and I wondered – when did this vital role get such a negative connotation? I’ve witnessed middle or ‘mid-level’ managers playing a huge role in the success of their organizations, and these hard-working multi-taskers should be proud of their contribution.

It’s time to reclaim the name, and become middle management proud! Let’s talk about 3 reasons middle managers are crucial to organizations- now, and in the future.

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A classic Dilbert comic cynically defines middle manager as “the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’. Although this gets a chuckle, one part is definitely true – middle managers are the glue, or the links that connect people in an organization. Very simply, middle managers are the connection between staff and senior managers – and sometimes the only connection – depending on the level of involvement that the senior team plays.

But middle managers are more than just a conduit of information, they are pushed and pulled in various directions, they work under tight deadlines, and are tasked with keeping staff ‘engaged’ and the senior staff happy and informed – all in the pursuit of turning strategy into action. This is where the rubber meets the road so to speak, and where ideas can gain traction.

Be a know-it-all

Being in middle management is tough. Not only do you have multiple groups to lead and report to, you have to know a lot. There are many different competencies that are critical to becoming an effective middle manager. These knowledge areas vary by organization, but suffice it to say that for middle managers quantity is an important factor in the broad and deep understanding necessary to do their job. You need to know how to do the work of the line staff, how to lead diverse groups, and how to navigate the world of the senior executive. From widgets to strategy, middle managers need to understand the whole business life-cycle.

Manage doesn’t mean micromanage

To be fair, there’s been a lot of talk about leadership vs. management lately, and whether managers should be obsolete because leaders are what is needed. While this idea has some merit, it can also be entirely based on semantics, since most employed middle managers are also leaders. In the past, middle managers had a more bureaucratic role, based on employee supervision, time-keeping, and reporting. More recently levels of paper pushing have been reduced with increased adoption of technology tools our workplace.

Middle managers have to understand and deal with change on a continual basis. While this change can mean evolving from a micro-manager to a leader, it can also encompass the many facets of employee changes, such as the newly ‘engaged’ employee that is empowered and encouraged to question everything instead of performing heads down assigned work.

Some middle managers have many duties but little authority. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have to be leaders. They have to be creative leaders, and leaders by example, and project leaders and…basically they do the same job as other middle managers with little or no staff to help them achieve their goal.

So hat’s off to middle managers everywhere. Flat organizations might be the current trend, but don’t undervalue essential assets and the benefits organizations can gain from a rich layer of middle management.

Terra Milles is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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I like your post because “middle managers” are often described as being terrible when as you said it’s a really tough job. You help translate the vision/strategy into actionable execution. You could call that just a “middle man” but that’s an essential role for everyone and key. And unfortunately you get yelled at from both sides often. So here here…middle manager.

Terra Milles

Yes! getting squeezed from both sides is not pleasant, and middle ‘leaders’ need such a diverse skillset to get things done.

Angela Hooker

“They have to be creative leaders, and leaders by example…”

So true, Terra! Fortunately, I work with managers who do lead by example, but boy, do I remember when I didn’t. What a chaotic work environment that was, and people did whatever they wanted. Instead of working together, our efforts were scattered and ineffective–just because our manager was.

Here’s to the creative and conscientious middle managers!