Research is ambivalent about the future of middle managers. “New technology itself has become the great general manager,” writes Lynda Gratton (2011, p. 36 ). She’s leading an international research consortium on the ‘future of work’. She announces the end of middle managers: ”Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect.” (p. 36).
She’s not alone with her prediction. Drucker stated in 1988 that “whole layers of management neither make decisions nor lead. Their main role is to serve as relays. Information-based organisations threaten that.” (in Dopson & Stewart, 1990, p. 5). Thomas and Linstead (2002, p. 72) conclude that “predictions over the future of middle management are profoundly pessimistic”. Dopson and Stewart traced already in 1990 these kind of pessimistic views back to 1958: information technology reduces the role of middle managers.
This view on the future of middle managers is confirmed by the rather gloomy testimonials from middle managers themselves: “ …. a frustrated, disillusioned individual caught in the middle of a hierarchy, impotent and with no real hope for career progression” (Dopson & Stewart, 1990, p.3). “They get lost in the recurring reorganisations and pressure to overwork and ‘presenteeism’.” (Thomas & Lindstead, 2002, p. 89). Boston Consulting Group (2010) reports that the decline in engagement during the financial crisis was most dramatic among middle managers. They don’t feel recognized. Accenture (2007) reports similar findings .
Middle managers seem to have become an endangered species. They are dinosaurs, not fit for the volatile business world of today, and squeezed by demanding superiors & employees. Their superiors are frustrated because they “are not proactive”, “don’t find their voice” (Sims, 2003, p. 1196). Middle managers are seen as the “frozen middle”: they block strategic changes (Accenture, 2007).
Other researchers have a more optimistic view on the impact of technology on middle management and announce a revival: “new technologies will release middle managers from their traditional coordinating functions to take new challenges” (Polakoff, 1987 in Dopson & Stewart, 1990, p. 8). “Middle managers are agents for changing the organisation’s ‘self-renewal process’ because they are able to eliminate the ‘noise fluctuation and chaos within an organization’.” (Nonaka, 1988 in Dopson & Stewart, 1990, p. 8). Shi, Markoczy and Dess (2009) state that the role is increasingly important because formal structure, specializations and occupational subcultures create structural holes in the organization.
“Why Middle Managers May Be the Most Important People in Your Company?” states Wharton professor Ethan Mollick (2011). He examined the role of middle managers in the gaming industry during the last 12 years and found out that it was the middle managers that made the difference in firm performance. Other research confirms. More horizontal structures increases the importance of MM in achieving competitive advantage (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1994; Currie & Procter, 2005; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Kanter, 1982). Also Boston Consulting Group (2010) and Accenture (2007) acknowledge the need for stronger middle management.
Is middle management becoming obsolete or more important? Should an organization disinvest or invest in middle management? The answer is clear: the role of the middle manager is transforming. The classic role of the middle manager who translates strategy in actionable objectives no longer fits reality. Middle managers with this mindset will add less and less value and become more and more frustrated. Middle managers who adapt to their changing role could well become highly valued dynamos in their organisations.
-Accenture (2007). Press release: “Middle managers around the world unsatisfied with their Organizations, Accenture Survey Finds.” New York, Jan.
– Boston Consulting Group (2010). Creating a new deal for middle managers. Empowering a neglected but critical group.
– Currie, G., & Procter, S. (2005). The antecedents of middle managers’ strategic contribution: the case of a professional bureaucracy. Journal of management studies, 42, 1325-1356.
– Dopson, S., & Stewart, R. (1990). What is happening to middle management. British Journal of Management, 1, 3-16.
– Floyd, S., & Woodridge, B. (1994). Dinosaurs or dynamos? Recognizing middle management’s strategic role. Academy of management executive, 8 (4), 47-57.
– Gratton, L. (2011). The end of the middle manager. Harvard Business Review (jan-feb), p. 36.
– http://hbr.org/web/slideshows/cartoon/0313/6-slide (cartoon middle management
– Kanter, R. (1982). The middle manager as innovator. Harvard business review. 60 (July-August), 95-106.
– Mollick, E. (2011). Why middle managers may be the most important people in your company? http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2783
– Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. Oxford: the Oxford University Press.
– Thomas, R., & Linstead, A. (2002). Losing the plot? Middle Managers and identity. Organization, 9 (1), 71-93.
– Shi, W., Markoczy, L., & Dess, G. (2009). The role of middle management in the strategy process: group affiliation, structural holes and tertius lungens. Journal of management, 35 (6), 1453-1480.
– Sims, D. (2003). Between the millstones: a narrative account of the vulnerability of middle managers’ storying. Human Relations, 56 (10), 1195-1211.