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Reframing Middle Management

9th September 2016 | Gordon Tinline

Reframing Middle Management

Historically the view of the middle manager has been far from positive. Back in 1990 a typical middle manager was profiled as ‘a frustrated, disillusioned individual caught in the middle of a hierarchy, impotent and with no real hope for career progression.’ (Dopson & Stewart, 1990). In fact, management activity generally seems to have become progressively less fashionable in the past two or three decades, particularly in comparison to leadership. In my new book “The Outstanding Middle Manger”, co-authored with Cary Cooper, I don’t argue that being a middle manager should be held up as the pinnacle of achievement or the ultimate aspiration. Rather I am suggesting that middle management as an area of functional activity is important and forms a large part of the day-to-day role played by many people in organisations. It is also suggested that middle management development has been somewhat neglected in recent years, particularly in comparison with leadership development, and that this has negative implications for those in mid-level roles and the wider organization.

The demise of middle management has been predicted by many over the last few decades (e.g. Gratton, 2012). Yet in 2012 the Wall Street Journal estimated there were 10.8 million middle managers in the United States, making up nearly 8% of the total workforce. This represented a rise of close to 2% of the US workforce from ten years previously. Numbers do ebb and flow with economic conditions and vary by sector. What is clear is that middle management roles are changing as a result of technological, commercial and generational influences.

Very few people have middle manager as their job title. The popular New York based professional job-matching site, The Ladders, analysed job titles in 2013 and noted that the title of manger was on the demise whilst specialist titles where on the rise (The Ladders, 2013). There has been a shift away from explicit generalist middle manager roles and that shift has occurred in two main ways. The first change is the rise of the senior specialist and the second is the stronger focus on leadership rather than management. However, in mid-level roles rather than move from specialist to generalist, it is much more likely that you will move to specialist PLUS generalist.

For those in mid-level positions, management is at least as important as leadership in terms of the core role. This should be reflected in the development people at these levels are exposed to. I am not suggesting that leadership development should be off the agenda. People in the middle should lead. However, they should receive more good quality management development. The latter focusing on core management skills such as planning, organizing, time management, resource allocation, project management and budgeting.

We have been through waves of hierarchical top-down management, and upside down management (led from the front line), perhaps it is time for positive management from the middle. Making the middle the outstanding level in your organization may be the transformational programme that no one has tried yet. Middle managers can and should be recognised as pivotal to the success of many businesses, connecting strategy to implementation. It’s a cliché, but they truly are the glue that can hold the organization together.

Dopson, S, and Stewart, R (1990) What is happening to middle management. British Journal of
Management, 1, pp3-16
Gratton, L. (2012) The End of the Middle Manager. Available from: https://hbr.org/2011/01/column-the-end-of-the-middle-manager
The Ladders (2013) Middle Management Titles are Phasing Out, Available from: http://www.theladders.com/press-releases/theladders-releases-new-job-evolution-data--middle-management-titles-are-phasing-out


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