August 5, 2021

The fall and rise of the middle manager

Businesspeople Sharing Sushi — Image by © Tokyo Space Club/Corbis

Organisational dynamics presents a wide panorama of phenomena which baffle even the best of psychologists and workplace behavioural experts. Trends and headlines change every decade and in recent years , the pace of change has been blinding. While technology and digital revolution has made exponential changes, the change from the career perspective has come to the ‘middle manager’.

In the hierarchical, box shaped organisation structures of the past , there has often been the rampant debate of  the neglect of officers who were between their tenth and twentieth years of their career journey. The logic proffered was that , the young professional traverses a plateau after the initial vibrant years in the organisation and moves into a phase where she loses the zest to innovate and learn and moves into a role where their primary role is to keep the lights burning. The monotonous phase ends with some of them progressing into the senior management phase , running organisations and making critical business decisions, where they need to summon their experience and shoulder immense responsibility and accountability. As a organisational pundit avered“ Middle Management phase is a necessary evil !” It has also been identified as a phase of life where the professional is sufficiently torn between making work – life choices and endlessly tries to find the fine balance of professional and personal life. It is also a phase in life when there is large mind share of activities of setting up families and managing social equations. Dilbert cartoons portray middle managers as the bored executive indulging in multiple repetitive tasks.

Team Rowing Across Lake — Image by © Randy Lincks/Corbis

We have a leadership capacity problem in every walk of life. It is also the nature of the animal – in today’s world and there is no one who can potentially be an expert in everything. Distributed skills and competencies necessitate the emergence of a pride or caucus of leaders. And there is nothing wrong with that.

My experience as a professional leads me to doubt that one person can definitively “figure things out”.  All kinds of things get in the way: we see patterns, but don’t recognize; we listen to the tunes, but don’t comprehend; insights are garbled in transmission; or there is simply too much noise in the environment.  Maybe the best we can aspire for is an approximation of true understanding, like the curve that asymptotically approaches but never touches the ray. In this context, the best bet is to learn collectively as an organisation. What matters therefore is the process of questioning by which one tries to figure things out.

What is needed is not just a strong team and the ability to delegate but Critical Leader Relationships – a handful of trusted confidants who can be eyes and ears, helpers and advisers, and sources of support and honest feedback for various initiatives. There is the need for professionals not just to respond to the forces around them but to shape them. This can only be achieved through collective leadership in today’s world. George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable men”. This is easier said than done. It is only when he or she is part of the flock or the herd, does this become increasing practical.

There is a latent leader in all of us. What we seek is a ‘ high touch’ issue – something we feel close to and warms our heart , a ‘high tone’ topic which engages our mind and a ‘high octane’ movement which brings out a transformational experience in us that is energizing and collaborative.The need for inclusive discussions within organisations and outside, have necessitated the birth of a new leadership role – that of a facilitator. Facilitative leadership,  whichalso needs the middle management maturity , is quickly gaining traction and mindshare in organisations across sectors.

The new ‘Mecca’ of information Wikipedia describes the facilitator as ‘someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to achieve them, without taking a particular position in the discussion’.  The role of a facilitator in many a business context is that of someone who will drive consensus and direction in a group and often, without wielding a position of power or authority. Such a role finds larger meaning in the changing look of ‘competition’, these days.  The word competition is increasingly being replaced by co-opetition. The discussions are not just about improving the playfield for you, but also brining the larger focus on the development of the industry or the sector.

At times, we expect them to not just perform magic at conflict resolution, pose as conduit for great ideas, keep the focus of the group on the ball which traverses from subject to subject, but also play God! It is a very interesting melange of roles that we expect them to play. When we think more deep, it is, at times,  more important to understand what are the roles they should not be playing.

But this is changing and so is the dynamics of the workplace of the future. There are several changes which has brought the spotlight back on the middle manager.

Changing organisation structures

The hierarchical organisations have been broadly restructured into manageable chinks of business units with flatter structures. The need to be closer to the fickle customer and reduction of  the multiple touchpoints for decision making has necessitated the emergence flat matrix structures. With this structure decisions are cascaded down much faster and every employee plays more engaged roles.

Changing pace of transformation

Every industry changing and the fine line between industries are also quick becoming more invisible with each of them having a digital core. There is no IT company anywhere because diverse industries have also embraced the digital platform. This change has also put the middle manager on the pedestal since they come with an interesting blend of business understanding and change maturity

Changing leader profile

The average age of the CEO is rapidly reducing. The emergence ‘boss baby’ is also evident in the emerging technology companies. The quintessential middle manager is closer to the top management seat than anytime in the last several decades. Organisations clearly understand that youth is no guarantee for innovation nor is age a clear marker for maturity. Placement specialists place a premium on the blend of both profiles

Gone are the days when we considered the middle managers as the ‘also rans’ in organisations. Today a strong middle management pipeline is an indicator of the ability of the firm to embrace change , take the digital leap, expand  and take organisations to the next orbit of growth.

Rajesh Nair


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