Confessions of a Middle Manager – Part 1 of many

I do not work hard. No middle manager works hard. Any middle manager who says they work hard probably has a bunch of employees who wish they didn’t. Let me ask, what is difficult about middle management? I’ve been in the trenches. I was a high performer and routinely had difficult assignments. I was the “Go To” guy for problems no one else could solve. I delivered solutions in time-frames that other people said wasn’t possible. So when I say I don’t work hard now I say it from the perspective of someone who used to work very hard. Middle managers might be very busy and I’m sure they do actually work, but “hard work” implies that they spend their time doing something that is challenging. On a level of stimulation I would not say my routine tasks are particularly challenging.

A middle manager adds value by being able to make decisions. They are often the first level of approval for major changes in an organization. Decisions that are too big for line managers or too risky often go to the middle manager. This is where I get frustrated because so many middle managers I’ve reported up to, reported to directly, or worked with were unable to make decisions. They would go into contortions trying to get cover from their subordinates or their boss. This is insane! As a line manager I’ve had employees who made as much or more than myself. Due to the nature of my work, that is not unusual. I know of no middle managers who get paid less than any of their staff. A middle manager who cannot make a decision is automatically not worth their pay.

Let me put it another way, a middle manager is supposed to have a mix of education, knowledge, and experience that allows them to provide direction for the teams that report to them. Organizations pay for this mix and expect to leverage it so that even though their middle management may not be the ones executing the work they are the ones who set activities in motion and make the decisions on the “how” and “when” while leveraging their line managers to decide on the “who”.

None of this is hard work though. The hard work is done by the people in the trenches. Middle managers have the danger of adopting an ivory tower viewpoint. They are isolated enough that they may not always experience some of the struggles that the regular staff do. In fact, middle managers meet with executives often enough that it is easy to adopt a perspective from the executive point of view rather than seeing what is going on in the trenches.

Furthermore, if you are “working hard” as a middle manager what you are probably doing is micro-managing. The effectiveness of line supervisors doing that is questionable. As a middle manager you are just an obstruction. Middle managers should have enough leadership ability that people will do their jobs when asked. I know enough about everyone’s job to be dangerous. I tell myself that often. The best thing I can do is stay aware of the details, make sure everyone has what they need to move forward, and be ready to clear obstacles when they come up. Anything more than that and I risk getting in someone’s way.

If you’re in middle management, ask yourself this. Were you a help or a hinderance today? If you’re not sure ask yourself this. Did you talk more or listen more today?

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