Which future for middle managers ?

Among the subjects that are classified “sensitive” by many companies, middle management is not one of the least. It’s easy to understand that the latter will be widely impacted by the emergence of networked ,”unintermediarized” organizations, what brings legitimate fears. Companies fear the consequences of mid-managers fears and reaction and want to preserve the internal peace. As for middle managers, they need to know what will happen to them, if their job will change or if they will simply become useless.

Let’s try to demistify the debate in order to see clearer.

1°) Where middle management comes from ?

Better starting from the beginning. In a world where workers have poor qualifications, don’t need autonomy and where trust is not a common value, Almighty God (ie the CEO, the founder) needed agents to represent his authority on the field since he could not be behind everybody’s back. Knowing that one person can only manage a few people, stratas were piled up, made of people whose role was to control other people. In a more simple way, in the beginning, middle management embodied the executive power on the field. It controls, watches, and expresses itself through its sanction power.

As the economic and social context evolved, the role of middle management evolved too. But not as fast and deeply to prevent middle managers from feeling uncomfortable in their suit, indeed looks anachronistic in this early XXIth century. They are expected to make more on a qualitativ and human side, to develop their employees and play a facilitator’s role but are not provided with the right tools and means and have to do with their old carrot and stick policy.

In brief, the necessary foreman has become a “little chief”, embodying all the enterprises’ failings. Someone who is often pointed to, neglecting that he’s not always responsible for a situation he rarely enjoys.

2°) Which conception of middle-management ?

That’s what should be the starting point. Before wondering what mid managers will become, it’s important to know what we are talking about. People ? Role ? The word “mid management” itself only means one thing : it’s an intermediate stratum, regardless to its role. Starting from that, everything is possible, according to two factors : how a given company sees middle management and how mid manager see themselves.

Some companies think that mid managers can’t be more than little chiefs in charge of administrative tasks and control (in the more basic meaning, surveillance would be more relevantà. Some others think there are things to do to develop people, interactions, to facilitate teamwork and knowledge exchanche, and that these should fail into mid manager’s share, since they are close to the staff, to the operations field. These new activites should take a part of the time previously devoted to control, staff being much more autonous thann 40 years ago.

Some mid managers also see things the same way. They’d like to do more, better, but it’s not a part of their job or they don’t have the means to do so, so they preach in the wilderness, sometimes against their own management. Some others are very comfortable in their role of little chief and don’t want any extended role or responsibility since being the depository (even by delegation) of an undisputed authority is somehow securing for them.

So a first conclusion appears as obvious  : middle management won’t disappear. The only question is to know what it will become and how to get there painlessly. It mainly depends on the two above mentioned points : manager’s and corporate vision of what a mid manager should be, on a scope that goes from stric control to people development and facilitation. It may looks like this :

In short :

– if neither the enterprise nor the managers consider that things could be different than they are now, we can be sure that nothing will change except if an imminent peril makes them change their mind. That’s the kind of company that sees no interest in social medias and where the few people that tried to launch some initiatives had to fight agains the corporate culture and even their colleagues.

– if the enterprise seeds the need for change and mid managers don’t. A change is possible but il will need a lot of HR and change programs to make things possible. Such businesses should also hire new people who feel comfortable with the wanted evolution. Maybe it’s what happened at CISCO even if it was not with mid managers but with top managers : part of the top management had to leave while the others were trained and coached…and in the meantime the new recruits were selected regarding to their capability to be comfortable in the “new” organization.

– if both the enterprise and mid managers agree on what their future will be, it’s the most favorable context. But it does not prevent from being viligant and provide people with some accompanying programs.  That’s not because everyboduy wants to follow the same path that no fear exists, that a reassuring monitoring is not necessary. It’s the kind of company where a social media pilot can quickly become mainstream without too much preparation work.

– mid managers want to evolve but the enterprise does not. I think it’s rather a conceptual case that is very rare. This kind of company is characterized by ongoing internal frictions and the change, that always comes from the bottom, only happen after a conflict or confrontation. The kind of company where, waiting for the top management to open their eyes, people launch projects under the radar.

Middle management is far from being dead and has a long life to live. The only question is to know what these days will look like, what matters being that eveyone can make sense of the new situation. As for knowing if some cases are more or less dangerous for the future of any business…I let you find your own answers.

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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