It’s easy to be critical of middle managers. Some people view middle management as little more than a way station between “real” work and the executive suite. However, I believe middle managers have an essential role in enabling people and enhancing the system. Plus, they have a really tough job. Before you indulge in criticism, here are ten things to remember.  

Insufficient Training and Mentorship for New Managers

1. Most people in management roles receive little or no training on how to do the job. Many organizations promote people who excelled as individual contributors doing technical work into management roles. This is not an easy or straight-forward transition. Furthermore, the skills required for a management are often vastly different.

Managers receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages that they should figure it out on their own. Managers who ask for help get tagged as “not management material.” Kudos to those who learn in and lean into this role.

2. A lot of the management training out there is crap. Few organizations have robust and confidential mentorship programs. When the mentor has input on evaluation, trust erodes. I was lucky to find a mentor outside my company.

10 obstacles middle managers face

3. People in management roles need to see the system and work on system, but receive little to no training in system seeing/thinking/acting.  Relentless pressure tends to hold their focus on short term events and results, making it difficult to see patterns and connect the dots of seemingly unconnected events.

Mental Models of Management

4. Many people in management roles are working out of a mental model of management that limits their effectiveness. We have years of research showing the benefits of bounded team autonomy and self-organization, None the less, top down control is still a thing.

5. Thus, many of the role models new managers have aren’t helpful. If people have never experienced good management, you can’t fault them for a lack of imagination.

6. People in management roles need to work on the work system; they are also in the system, and their behavior is shaped by the system they work in. Both top managers and middle managers fall into predictable patterns of behavior.

Unrealistic Expectations

7. People in management roles are expected to achieve results over which they have no direct control. They must work thru other people and create work environments and work systems that support other people to do excellent work. Most managers have no training in how to do this. In many organizations, incentive structures work against it.

8. People in management roles are dealing with incomplete and ambiguous knowledge. It’s a fantasy that they have all the information and know what to do. This belief afflicts both managers and those who report to them. It doesn’t serve managers–or non-managers–well.

9. Most people in management roles face demands from their managers and from the people who report to them. The are pulled from above and below.  These demands are not always aligned and may be mutually exclusive.

Lack of Support

10. Middle managers receive little peer support.  Most managers face isolation and competition from other middle managers who are trying to meet locally optimized goals, obtain scarce resources and look good to the next level up. This is even more difficult for new managers. They can’t appear to needy to their bosses. Other managers are competing for the same resources. And, power difference–no matter how slight–changes their relationship with former peers.

In Sum…

Middle manages have a critical job and don’t get a lot of support to do it. Role empathy is in order. So is respect.

Updated 2020

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