Middle managers are commonly the butt of jokes in sitcoms and the punchlines of comedic routines. They’re often undervalued, underutilized and sometimes even looked down on by senior managers who see them as nothing more than go-betweens to interact with lower-level employees.
They are sometimes despised by workers, who see them as robots assigned to execute management dictates. Some workforce surveys show that half of all employees even question the competence of the middle managers they report up to.
Middle managers routinely reside at the intersection of unpopular edicts handed down by senior managers − sometimes having to enforce practices and procedures that go against their own values and ideals − and workers fed up with seemingly endless streams of confusing, conflicting change initiatives. They are often weighed down with responsibilities but woefully lacking in authority.
Middle managers have usually worked hard and paid dues to get where they are and continue to do so. Many of them went into management believing they were headed toward the executive ranks only to find few (if any) career advancement opportunities in the flatter operational structures being adopted by many companies. The ranks of middle management is largely populated by Gen Xers stuck in line behind baby boomers who occupy more senior level positions and who aren’t planning to leave the workforce anytime soon. Some call it the “gray ceiling.”
It probably doesn’t help matters that many leadership consultants are advocating for an end to “management” in favor of “leadership” at every organizational level. That might sound good in theory but it’s ridiculous in practice. As a leadership consultant and coach myself, I’m all in favor of developing leaders at every level, beginning with frontline employees. However, some practitioners treat leadership and management as though there is little connection between the two and management as relatively worthless. Too many senior executives are buying into it.
Management comprises skills, functions and practices that are required for organizational functionality and stability, and these things cannot be abandoned over some misguided high-mindedness about the disparate roles of leadership and management. Someone has to make certain that the work of the organization gets done efficiently and in a timely manner, and that role generally falls to middle managers.
There is nothing wrong with being a middle manager as long as you find the work satisfying, and you keep your sights set on moving up and having a greater impact on your professional environment.
If you’re feeling stuck in the middle, here are some ideas for regaining control of your career and your future:
1. Find a crisis and solve it. No, not some impending organizational disaster, but something you can narrowly define and you have the ability and authority to change. Perhaps it’s something no one else wants to touch. Showing that you can improve a process, increase productivity or reduce costs even on a smaller scale can gain the notice of higher ups.
2. Come out of hiding. Ask to be included on a team assigned to look for solutions to some difficult operational issue and make sure you are an active, thoughtful, valuable participant. This allows others to see what you’re capable of doing.
3. Manage yourself. Set clear professional goals, outlining steps and a timetable for achieving them. Understand whether you need additional training or education to get where you want to be, but don’t expect your employer to pay for it. Be disciplined and resolute in your approach to work and to achieving your goals, remembering that the journey to achieving your ultimate career objective will probably be more like a marathon than a sprint.
4. Forget about loyalty. Your bosses are probably only as devoted to you as they believe you are valuable to them. Consider whether moving to another company or even another industry with more growth potential might be the right thing to do.
5. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. If you’re in a long line of people waiting to move up the ladder you might be better off in a smaller company or a startup with a less rigid chain of command and more opportunities to have an impact.