Organizations and social scientists have long seen middle managers as a target for assigning blame, or they have hardly seen them at all. As far as many are concerned, middle managers are invisible; they barely exist. However, this author argues, middle managers should be valued for what they contribute and be seen as a resource to be developed. The author describes why and how to give middle managers their due.
Managers are sources of endless fascination and analysis, but nearly all writing, popular and scholarly, centers on CEOs and the pretenders to that particular office. Compared to the volume of books and words that have been written about those above them in the organization, our understanding of middle managers is remarkably thin.
Any discussion about middle managers revolves around at least several questions and conundrums. Take, for example, the impact of restructuring on their careers and jobs. One view is that middle managers have been as much the victims of restructuring as have blue collar employees. Others however, see middle managers as the beneficiaries of restructurings. Instead of having to continue their entrapment in stultifying bureaucracies, they have actually been liberated to become “intrapreneurs,” to take charge of their own careers, and, like many other professionals, to enjoy the benefits of being mobile and having portable skills. There are other important questions about middle managers that need to be answered. How has their work changed? What is important to them in their work? How do they think about their circumstances and what impact has their experience had on their loyalty to their employer?
To answer these questions, I interviewed middle managers across the country, and in special depth in two firms in the Boston area — Fleet Bank, just as it was being acquired by Bank of America, and “TechCo,” a particular, high-tech firm in the Boston area. I also analyzed several national surveys. This article will focus on my findings from the interviews I conducted.
Just who are middle managers? It is important to note that though middle managers make many decisions, and many important ones, the context in which they make those decisions is not of their own making. Middle managers do not set the organization’s strategy, nor do they decide which markets to enter, with whom to merge, how much to invest, and what technology to employ.
Senior managers, in the words of Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, “set agendas,” and in doing so shape the direction of the organization.i Do middle managers do anything similar? In fact, it turns out that the answer is “Yes.” They make decisions about resource allocation that are central and strategic, albeit at a lower level and with much less visibility than decisions made by senior managers.
In interview after interview the managers with whom I spoke described their work as mediating dealings between teams and divisions within the organization, and between the organization and its customers. The core fact is that in shedding managerial levels, organizations have pushed core managerial responsibilities down to middle management. Middle managers are now the negotiators between different interests and they are making key decisions about trade-offs. One manager commented that, “Everything is important to my boss. So the rest is up to me.” Another said, “These tradeoffs between quality and timeliness and complexity and all this, who thinks about that in the organization… you know, these kinds of decisions and challenges? I think they’re mostly dealt with by middle management.”
Despite this reality, restructuring for some managers has led to jobs that, simply, have a narrower scope. One manager who ran a technical operation in the Fleet Bank described it this way: “Yes, well it has changed over the years a bit. There was technology in operations, and I used to work a bit more than I do today, I used to be involved in a lot of other technology-related projects, offer implementation conversions. As we grew, my field of expertise narrowed. You know, it’s become more difficult to be a jack of all trades.”
There are, on the other hand, middle managers who do not feel that their autonomy is being squeezed or that the scope of their work is shrinking. In the bank, one of the most successful lending managers described how her autonomy increased, as the reorganizations led her superiors to pay less attention to her:
“With this job I have become much more autonomous for two reasons. One is that there were some major management changes above me early on. After I took this position, my manager left and then I was kind of out of a manager for about six months. My new manager came in and really had many other, more important projects that he was working on, so that by default, I was able to just do my thing and keep him apprised enough to make him feel comfortable that I was in control.”
Autonomy is the obverse of control, and it is not sensible to talk about one without bringing in the other. Many of the managers interviewed in Bank of America felt that their work had become increasingly controlled. Perhaps the most remarkable example is the stories told by the managers of local bank branches. Up until the take-over by Bank of America, Fleet’s branch managers were measured by the volume and profitability of their branch and by their ability to sell banking products. How they did this was their business, and they were encouraged to be creative. Said one manager, “We had a lot of autonomy…you were pretty much on your own until you needed help or someone showed up every quarter or every year.” The situation today is very different. Branch managers are required to stand in the lobby greeting customers, they are given “seven priorities and fifty goals,” and they have to fill out daily reports showing how they have performed on certain measures. Their work day is totally scripted by headquarters. They are not judged simply on results as before, but also on process, a process that is heavily controlled. The managers have clear views on this new reality. Said one manager, “I am frustrated because I’ve lost the freedom to determine how I am going to achieve my goals.”
At TechCo, control is exercised less through checklists than by the strong organizational culture, a culture which virtually all managers termed “fault oriented.” The goal of interaction among managers is to identify problems and pound on them. A typical description of the culture was provided by one manager:
“… there’s a weakness-focused management style…generally managers poke at the gaps, poke at the shortcomings, poke at the deficiencies and they end up, if you have a two-hour meeting, you end up talking about all negative stuff. One of the former executives of this company was interviewing a financial manager and said, “Oh, by the way, how do you respond to positive feedback? Is that something that you need in order to succeed in your job and to be content with your position? Because if so, you aren’t gonna get it here.”
The point is that the organization’s culture is an informal one, something that inhibits people from taking too many risks because the price of failure is high. A great deal of research has convincingly demonstrated that an informal organizational culture can override formal objectives. In the case of TechCo, efforts to think or act too far outside of the box may be encouraged in principle, even though they are often punished in practice.
Middle managers are craft workers
While middle managers may be under increased pressure and feel more stressed, our research shows that they are strongly committed to the work itself. This is the most important part of the picture that emerged from our interviews with middle managers. One TechCo manager, in responding to a question about his job, said that he cared about “building things and getting products out to the customer.” A manager at Bank of America responsible for supervising a team who worked with wealthy clients described his job in the same terms. ”One of the thrills… is creating portfolios.” Another manager at TechCo commented:
“I think my job is a nice mix of the technical and business practices. I think I have a lot of autonomy… I get to manage some great guys, they’re a lot of fun and everyone is very motivated, so I don’t have a morale problem. And it’s very dynamic, it’s always changing. Six weeks ago I was managing a technical group and now I’m in Asia hiring people. It’s very interesting, it’s very dynamic. That’s what I like about the job.”
Comments like these were common in the interviews. Other managers went even further. For example, several of the managers at TechCo were members of an after-hours book club in which they read business books that they felt were relevant to their work. A manager at Bank of America was working to build a national association of managers in his particular specialty. The managers with whom I spoke would vigorously disagree with the 50’s sociologist C. Wright Mills’ assessment that, “The salaried employee does not make anything…no product of craftsmanship can be his to contemplate with pleasure.”ii
The best way to think about how these managers value their work is to conceive of them as craft workers, a term that is traditionally applied to skilled, blue-collar work. The sociologist, Randy Hodson,iii identifies four characteristics of craft work: the work is intrinsically interesting, employees have an opportunity to use existing skills and learn new ones, the work is an end as well as a means, and employees believe that their work is an important component of their personal identity. Another idea is what might be termed “craft pride,” that is a conscious commitment to the work and its quality, and a set of standards that distinguish craft work from other, less complex and less quality- conscious occupations.
One might wonder whether this craft attitude is simply an adaptive response to diminished opportunities. Perhaps people who are going nowhere, or whose jobs have been diminished in other ways, compensate by “liking” their work. But, in fact, I find no evidence that it is only “unsuccessful” middle managers who have a craft view of their work. The people who appear that they are on the way up are also committed to the work that they do. The simple fact is that while they may have many complaints about their firm and about how their work situation has deteriorated, most middle managers are committed to their work.
In the old regime, the pathways were stable and predictable over many years. Managers knew that the way to get to Job B was to first hold Job A; they also knew that Job B was the entry point to Job C. This certainty and stability have been disrupted both by the weakening of traditional silos and the growing importance of ad hoc teams and projects in organizing work.
What has remained true is that middle managers still stay within their chimneys. At both Bank of America and TechCo, moving across functional areas, i.e. across chimneys, is very rare. At TechCo, one manager commented that, “I think most people tend to stay within their division, their silo of expertise…there are some people who transition into different spots but I don’t think that is the norm.” At Bank of America, only one middle manager I interviewed, a branch manager who moved into wealth management, changed silos over the course of his career.
While people do spend their careers in one chimney, many of the managers have been aggressive in adding to their skill set and getting involved in new activities. This was particularly noticeable at TechCo, where the project-team model of doing the work encourages skill broadening. This is because the regular break-up of teams forces the members to search for new work, which often involves new repertoires. As an example, the same manager who commented that people stay within silos has moved from managing the firm’s TQM processes to managing the testing of the product prior to shipping it to customers, to learning project management skills (and getting a certificate), and to running the group responsible for tracking projects. Another TechCo manager who has spent his career in the same functional area nonetheless commented that “I would say I probably moved as a result of some re-definition of my role every two or three years.”
Despite managers’ efforts to gain new skills, the paths ahead are no longer clear. This brings into sharper relief the question of what does it take to succeed and what criteria are superiors using to judge these managers. One manager’s comment was typical, “I’m puzzled about how to make my next move.”
In some cases, the disruptions occur because new organizational forms, teams in particular, create ambiguity. If one’s job is to move from one ad hoc project team to another, the strategy for moving up becomes unclear. Sometimes, disruptions are due to simple efforts to save money. One manager with whom I talked described what might be termed a classic old-style career:
Coming out of college, I was pretty directionless. So I started by just figuring out how I could make some money and not be a beach bum. At that time, my primary interest was in playing basketball. I ended up working as a teller and in four years I moved up to management. So, here I am.
Moving up this way is no longer possible because the pathway from teller to a management job has been broken. The bank deliberately broke the link by hiring an increasing number of part-time tellers. It is very difficult now to move up from that position.iv
Career paths have also been disrupted because organizations are flatter. The ladders up are broken. Since upward mobility requires that there exist a spot to move up to, the elimination of these rungs is more than a little disruptive. A manager at TechCo testified on the impact of the changing shape of the corporate pyramid:
“I got on the management path really quite early… I would say that right now I am puzzled on how to make my next move. What’s different is that the company is shrinking. So there’s not the natural sucking up to the top.”
New business models can also lead to disrupted career paths. For example, instead of recruiting managers from the ranks of its employees, Bank of America now brings in customer-savvy outsiders from large chains like Wal-Mart. This has made it harder for customer-facing managers to move up, in part because they lack the experience and skills the Bank seeks and in part because vacant spots are being filled by outsiders.
When he characterized managers in the post-war period, William H. Whyte wrote that “between themselves and the organization they see an ultimate harmony.”v He went on to add that the shared assumption was, “Be loyal to the company and the company will be loyal to you.”vi Whyte’s managers were loyal to their firms and identified with their bosses. They respected what the organization did, they expected to be cared for by their firm, and they entertained no subversive thoughts about the ultimate purposes of the corporation or about whether the system in which they were embedded was equitable and fair.
When it comes to the managers I interviewed, I found them to be the exact opposite of Whyte’s manager: They felt little loyalty to their firm and a very tenuous identification with those at the top. A Bank of America survivor observed that, “The degree to which I feel that senior management is, I won’t say trusted, but respected, is variable.” A TechCo manager observed that loyalty “has taken a big hit.” What is striking is that even successful managers who have learned how to prosper in their organizations are so clear and open about their lack of commitment. One manager who had not simply survived the Bank of America merger but had come out in a better position (and who had prepared for our conversation by producing a sheaf of PowerPoint slides describing her job) nonetheless commented that
“I think it has changed a lot in 18 years, I mean you look at it, so you have a lot more stats in terms of loyalty even in Japan, where everyone is loyal and with the same company till the day they die. That will not happen anymore…I have been here for 18 years and I wonder if I am stupid or just comfortable and pretty conservative…I cannot say I am loyal… I might have been able to say that like about six years or maybe eight or ten years ago, to Bank of Boston.”
As the comments above suggest, there are several distinct explanations for the emotional distance that the middle managers feel exists between themselves and their employer. The most straightforward explanation is that managers’ jobs are at risk, a simple fact that leads people to withdraw psychologically, if not physically. The most straightforward expression of this view was offered by a manager who observed that, “I have to protect myself against TechCo.” The use of the word “against” is telling. This particular manager thought that TechCo was following the proper path in restructuring and downsizing; nonetheless, a big gap has opened up between the employee and employer.
Endemic insecurity has a direct negative effect on loyalty; it can also erode commitment via more indirect channels. One such effect is that as organizations restructure, power struggles and debates about resource allocation break out. These can be debilitating. As one manager said,
“You just start sensing some functional bitterness because job security is at stake in that there were whole sections of the organization that other sections would question whether you should just kill that off, why should we lose anybody in software engineering when you’ve got this whole group of people that leave at 4:00 o’clock and nobody understands what they do, that sort of thing. … it’s created some problems.. People that should be working together are actually not doing so. You see mistrust.”
Asked about how he felt about top management, a person I spoke with commented that, “Well, I can tell you that there’s a very tenuous bond between the leaders and the led. It’s sort of a trust issue.” The word “trust” is important here because it implies that there is a problem that goes beyond the insecurity that results from market forces that, in turn, are beyond anyone’s control. Among many of the middle managers there is a perception that top management is greedy and self-dealing. One manager, who is generally sympathetic to the need to restructure (“prune” for organizational health is the way she puts it) nonetheless was unhappy with executive greed: “It ticks me off. … what ticks me off is that – where’s the decision in all that? … it seems a bad example, because there are other people who I think have made a lot of money who really didn’t deserve it.” ) Her take on this is widely shared.
Many of the managers at TechCo also felt that top management feathered their own nest at the expense of the rest the firm. The complaints were of two varieties. The first was that when the large-scale layoffs were executed, the folks at the top protected themselves. As one manager put it, “One of the things that I think was a problem at the time was that there was a perception that managers were not touchable when the lay-offs came around. It was more that all the people at the bottom were getting cut out and none of the senior men was getting laid off.” In addition, TechCo managers shared the same worries as their brethren at Fleet regarding unbalanced compensation structures.
Top-management greed is corrosive but in some important sense the greed is not systematic. There are certainly many firms, doubtlessly a majority, where those at the top are sensitive to these issues and believe in shared pain and some measure of equity. There has, however, been a structural shift in the circumstances of middle managers, which leads them to feel more distant from their leaders. This is the disruption of career paths and the increased difficulty in making a move from the middle to the top. Middle managers today have less reason to believe that they are on a trajectory that will take them to the top and, therefore, they have less reason to identify with their bosses.
I have already described one source of this problem, namely the “de-layering” of the firm. However, the nature of the shift means that it has an impact at a much deeper level. Firms are increasingly inclined to hire managers from the outside rather than promote from within. For example, the Bank wants to instill greater consumer awareness in its system; thus, it has recruited branch managers from large retail chains. In other parts of the bank the organization has shown an increased willingness to bring in talent from the outside.
The impact of bringing in an outsider is amplified by two related considerations. First, the outsider is likely to take an adversarial stance vis a vis the organization, since his or her hiring implied that there were failures in that organization. As a result, the career advancement of many incumbent managers is disrupted. This will be amplified by the loss of “pull” with the incumbent CEO.
Middle managers used to feel that they were cut from the same cloth as the leaders of their organization. In some loose sense they felt “class solidarity.” The sources of this identification are easy to identify. Top management was typically drawn from the lower ranks in the organization. This led to a sense of familiarity and identification as well as to the expectation that advancement was well within the realm of possibilities for middle management. The recently broken ladders have altered all of this and middle managers need to search for new loyalties.
The attitudes of middle managers toward their careers are complex and composed of multiple strands. They take craft pride in their work and feel loyal to their colleagues. Their ambition is, by and large, limited, and many are willing to make some trade-offs in their careers in order to improve their family life. But, while committed to their tasks and to their colleagues, they have become alienated from top management. Their commitment to their firm is conditional and tentative.
The best way to think about these managers is that they live in a small world and have limited horizons. They are focused on their day-to-day job, committed to their colleagues, feel distant from their firm, see no larger purpose in what they were doing, and draw no political conclusions from anything that had happened to them or to the economy.
The smallness of their world does not mean that they are bitter or alienated. As we have seen, they like their work and are committed to their colleagues. They have lost respect for the people at the top and they are skeptical that their firms will take care of them. They are, in other words, caught between conflicting attitudes and emotions. What this all adds up to and what it portends going forward may be somewhat unclear. But it is important to try to understand it.
The “small world” perspective of middle managers enables them to survive, and sometimes prosper, in the new environment. However, this frame of mind is also limiting and disturbing. It means that the managers are not truly committed to their employers nor are they fully engaged in executing the firm’s strategy. This is a liability for the firm and a source of frustration for the managers themselves. It is also a risk that Peter Drucker long ago recognized, when he noted that managers’ concerns with the technical details of their work might lead them to lose sight of the bigger picture.vii
Moving beyond the small-world perspective requires finding a way to build careers and experience a sense of progress within the organization, despite the diminished opportunities for upward mobility. How should organizations go about building careers internally? In part, the idea is to take advantage of the craft orientation of managers and emphasize the opportunity for them to hone existing skills and develop new ones. The commitment of managers to their tasks is a major advantage in career building. But, craft commitment is not enough because, as we saw, it is part of the “small world” phenomenon.
Firms need to create career paths that do not entirely rest on upward mobility and that expose their managers to a broader view of the enterprise. One way to accomplish this is to encourage and permit more horizontal movement across positions and to facilitate this movement by increasing internal training opportunities. At the same time that horizontal mobility is increased, managers should be systematically exposed, via training and contact with top management, to the broader vision that articulates the enterprise’s purposes and strategy. .
We live in an era in which CEOs are glorified. It would be foolish to argue that the CEO is not relevant to organizational performance and it would be equally foolish to claim that no firm should ever reduce its managerial ranks. But the fundamental spirit of the times is wrong. As a group, middle managers are central, indeed crucial, to an organization’s success.
If management gurus have erred in bashing middle management, so have social scientists erred in dismissing them as victimized drones or, at the other extreme, as a group ripe to respond politically to their travails. Middle managers are well aware that their circumstances have shifted and that their hold on their jobs is more tenuous than in the past. They are much more skeptical of top management than they were before, and in some respects are alienated from their organizations. But they are committed to their work and gain considerable satisfaction from it. The spread of ad hoc and project teams has given many of them more variety and autonomy than they had in the past. Middle managers are increasingly arriving at a sensible balance of work and private life, and they are clear in explaining these choices and in drawing boundaries.
Organizations and social scientists both need to revise their views of middle managers. Middle management has wavered from being invisible to being a target. Both perspectives are wrong. Middle managers should be valued for what they contribute and be seen as a resource to be developed. Such a perspective is more accurate, healthier, as well as one that would be more productive for all concerned.
- John Kotter, The General Managers, (New York: Free Press), 1982
- C. Wright Mills, White Collar, (paperback edition), New York, Oxford University Press 1956, p. xvi
- Randy Hodson “Dignity In The Workplace Under Participative Management: Alienation and Freedom Revisited,” American Sociological Review, v61 (October, 1996)
- Hunter, Larry W., Annette Bernhardt, Katherine L. Hughes, and Eva Skuratowicz (2001)). “It’s Not Just the ATMs: Firm Strategies, Work Restructuring, and Workers’ Earnings in Retail Banking,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 54 (2A), 402-424.
- William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, (New York: Doubleday), 1956. p. 4
- Ibid, p. 143
- Drucker, Peter, The Practice of Management, (New York : Perennial Library), 1954 pp. 122-123