So, what can a middle manager do to be happier?

So, what can a middle manager do to be happier?

painting road_Martin BeekAs a continuation of our theme from last week, I decided to give some of my own views on middle management. Hopefully, my discussion will leave you with a somewhat more optimistic view of what these people “lost in the middle” can do to improve their lot in life.

Reading the article about the miseries of middle management in the Financial Times last week, I began to wonder again, and even more deeply, about what exactly seems to be making middle managers so unhappy. What or who is most to blame for the general discontent? Is it our corporate leaders, the way our organizations are structured and managed, or should we point the finger more at the middle managers themselves?

Of course, there are no easy or definitive answers, and any frustrating situation can be due to a amalgamation of factors.

According to the Harvard Business Review study referenced last time, managers studied by the researchers gave a variety of reasons for their misery at work. They felt under-appreciated, overworked, not listened to, and stuck in the middle of systems. Most of all they complained that the people above them were not working very hard and also not doing much to develop their subordinates.

One of the surprising, and disturbing, elements of the HBR survey was precisely which managers were the most disgruntled and discouraged. The researchers expected to find that the 16,000 “miserable” workers they identified would be poor performers, misunderstood or incompetent managers who simply were not doing their jobs effectively.

On the contrary, the study showed that the most unhappy were neither unprofessional or incompetent. They tended to be, somewhat ironically, not the poor performers, but the mid-range performers. In essence, they are the middle managers in the middle of the pack. Most of them were doing perfectly fine by all external measures, and they had been working in their companies for five to 10 years. One would have expected these people to be the glue holding everything together, not the ones complaining.

The HBR report concluded that, above all else, the salient problems for middle managers came from deficiencies in those above them, in our organizations’ need for better leaders. “Every employee deserves a good leader”, wrote the authors.

Of course, it is hard to argue with the concept that we all deserve competent—if not always extraordinary—leadership. The unfortunate reality today, though, is the likelihood that a middle manager will not have an effective boss, a person who sets a good example, creates an inspiring work environment, and helps people grow.

Having spent the past three decades working with middle managers in organizations—businesses where I worked or was CEO, others where I was a long-term consultant or coach, and also in several NGOs were I volunteered—I can safely say that many places of work are dysfunctional in their administration, as well as poorly led.

In spite of all this, I have decided to focus this post, and perhaps the next few, not on the structural problems of businesses, but rather on some of the things middle managers can do for themselves.

But, I must begin by making my perspective clear. Most assuredly, I do not have any magic solutions for middle managers or anyone else. And, I do not wish to sound in any way like a moralistic lecturer with “all the answers”.

For there simply are no easy answers with these types of issues. I have often spoken with my students and clients of my firm belief that leadership is accessible to everyone, at every level of an organization. Middle managers can learn to lead, to inspire, and to influence others from wherever they may sit. At the same time, I will be the last person to say that developing one’s leadership potential from the middle of an enterprise is easy. Like mastering anything, it takes a great deal of work, attention to learning, and determination to succeed.

With those caveats in mind, I can perhaps speak about some of the things I have learned over the years, mostly through listening to managers and leaders in all parts of organizations. In that sense, I may be able to provide some bits of insight for the “miserable” middle manager.

So, here is a brief outline of the concepts I will address in the week or weeks to come:

  • As a general rule, we all have more influence than we recognize.
  • Success in middle management often depends on one’s ability to reframe the job.
  • It’s not the nature of the job but what you do with the job that counts.
  • Leading from the middle is a decision to make a difference, if not in the entire company, then at least in your sphere of direct influence.
  • Leading effectively from the middle involves a fundamental change in mindset.
  • Middle managers have a great opportunity to be creative, in almost any context.

I will develop many of these points next time.

Image: Flickr user Martin Beek


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