The curse of middle management

This week we had the September edition of our monthly OD Talk that focused on the curse of middle-management as incited by several recent encounters we have had with clients who are in middle-management. 

In support of the client anecdotes that we are privy to we have observed that research findings show that middle-managers go through many challenges including burnout and depression as a result of the amount of pressure they operate under; mostly caused by being pulled in different directions, working with inefficient processes and not getting enough support from the organisation.

Attendees’ views:

  • Middle managers who work with large teams under enormous pressure from their senior leaders (who are results and performance driven) find it difficult to remain resilient and effectively lead their teams.
  • Being a manager is not only about managing resources and performance, but also about managing the wellbeing of people. 
  • The curse of middle management is deeper than just being stuck in the middle of opposing views and requests, it is also taking these views and translating them into operational detail.
  • There might be role confusion in the HR department – are we there to support the ‘human’ or the ‘resource’? What the organisation expects from HR is often a more transactional approach, and the wellbeing of the people might get sacrificed to make the employer happy. 
  • Employees are always expected to care for the business interests but does the business show that they care about the employees?
  • There is a notable lack of support and development for managers who are transitioning from specialist roles to management. These individuals may have been promoted because of their expertise and performance and therefore may not necessarily possess adequate management and people skills. Coaching and mentorship programs as well as creating a culture that enables managers to succeed can be a great starting point for organisations. 
  • Incorporating a ‘buddy system’ into the development programs for managers can also help them to have a platform to share their experiences and learn from one another (depending on the size and structure of the organisation).
  • Investing in the development of middle managers is critical not only to set them and the organisation up for success, but also to build a bench of fit executives who can step into future ambiguities. Middle managers who are developed, supported, and feel prioritised today are better equipped and more likely to do the same for middle managers they will manage as future executives, thus breaking the curse!

This conversation was so insightful, and we cannot deny that there are so many factors that contribute (more than mentioned above) to the challenge of being a middle manager. What stood out is that (1) support and development is crucial (2) organisational culture needs consistent effort and time, and (3) employee experience (which influences employee engagement) should be on the manager’s agenda even though HR is there as a custodian and business partner.  

Most of our leadership development interventions are profoundly focused on self-mastery as we believe that the most essential tool a leader/manager has at their disposal is themselves. The self-awareness and high emotional intelligence that comes with self-mastery is essential to strike the balance between effectiveness and health.

We appreciate everyone who took their time to attend and contribute to such an informative conversation. If you missed it, follow the link below for the recording