Eleven things to remember about people in middle management roles.

It’s easy to be critical of managers.  A few things to remember.

0. Most people in management roles want to do a good job, but may not know what to do or how to do it.

1. People in management roles are dealing with incomplete and ambiguous knowledge.  It’s a fantasy that they have all the information and know what to do (which may be held by both managers themselves and people who wonder why their managers do clueless things).

2. Most people in management roles receive little or no training on how to be  good managers.  Many people are promoted into management roles because they excel at technical work.   This is not an easy transition.

3. Many people in management roles are working out of a mental model of management that limits their effectiveness.  (See Don Gray’s Managing in Mayberry for two common mental models and one that’s less common.)

4. Many of the role models new managers have aren’t helpful. If people have never experienced good management, you can’t fault them for a lack of imagination.

5. Much of the management training out there is crap.

6. People in management roles are expected to achieve results over which they have no direct control.  They must work thru other people and create work environments and work systems that support other people to do excellent work. Most managers have no training in how to do this.

7. Most people in management roles face demands from their managers and from the people who report to them. The are pulled from above and below.  These demands are not always aligned and may be mutually exclusive.

8. Middle managers receive little peer support.  Most managers face isolation and competition from other middle managers who are trying to meet locally optimized goals, obtain scarce resources and look good to the next level up.  This is even more salient for new managers. Power difference (not matter how slight) changes the relationship with former peers.

9. People in management roles need to see the system and work on system, but receive little to no training in system seeing/thinking/acting.  Relentless pressure tends to hold their focus on short term events and results, making it difficult to see patterns and connect the dots of seemingly unconnected events.

10. People in management roles need to work on the work system; they are also in the system, and their behavior is shaped by the system they work in. Both top managers and middle managers fall into predictable patterns of behavior.

13 Replies to “Eleven things to remember about people in middle management roles.”

  1. Excellent points! I think each and every one of them is spot on and both managers and executives should take heed to this and examine just how true these may be for their organization. Any shift away from these typicalities to a more pragmatic style of management would be a serious boon for organizations who takes real (not imagined) productivity seriously.

    I think understanding these factors can help us to properly empathize with poor management and to try to “manage up” as is so often recommended. That being said, I think these managers still must accept much of the scrutiny and criticism they get for the following reasons:

    1. In most organizations management is a promotion, with it comes a responsibility to facilitate and encourage improving the “system” not just be a cog in the wheel. I’m a “maker” and yet I still don’t just blindly accept the status quo.

    2. Everyone is responsible for their own learning, as much as we would like our organizations to be learning organizations, even when this happens it is up to us as individuals to be willing to learn. The lack of training and good mentors still seems like an excuse. To learn my skills I sought out my mentors online and offline and learned on my own. I’ve also read books on effective management, agile, lean and on learning. I expect no less from someone in management.

    3. Just as it is the sign of a good employee to “manage up” it is also the sign of a good manager. Managers may feel pressure above but passing the buck to those below is not a good or fair solution.

    4. Many companies seem to trend towards being middle heavy after years of promoting people into management due to skill or seniority (even sometimes because of a lack of skill). Good companies that retain their best workers through compensation not simply promotion seem to need far less “managing” than those who simply promote their best out of the areas they are most effective.

    In the end though, you’re right that effective management in most organizations can be a tough gig, and playing the blame game serves nobody. The organization either functions well as a team or fails as a team. In the end everyone pays the price for poor management, but I still feel we are all individually responsible for the roles we play.

  2. I’d nominate as 0.1:

    Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error.

    Though that may not fit with the level and type of the other points in your list.

    Great list. Thanks.


  3. This is a great post. It is quite fascinating, really, and gives much food for thought. Compassion for employees is often stated as a fundamental attribute all managers must possess, yet the Boss is left to bear the brunt of all complaints.

    The things that are represented in your 11 items also points to a much more curious and difficult dynmamic. When those with few people skills are promoted to middle management with little or no training for that job, they are also eventually appointed to senior management roles – with little or not training for that job, either! Then, those senior managers become executives – and we all wonder why the C-level seems distant, disengaged, uncaring, or lost.

    The problem list in the systems we’ve created and, subsequently, the behvaiors those systems reward. If you are entering the workplace today, and ambitious, will you curry more favor with those who can promote you by being an awesome people person, or by being a technical expert in your field? There’s very little reason, in most companies, to focus on anything other than being a technical expert.

    Until that is no longer the norm, there will be very little reason to change, and middle managers will continue to be a much put-upon group, and very ill prepared for the role that they perform.

  4. Thank you for this great post. IMHO the system itself – the organization culture, rules, values – “shapes” the managers. In other words, even if am trained etc, as manager i “have” to apply these “implicit” rules of the organization (most of the time “process more important thant individuals”…). Maybe it is a way to understand the “peter principle”?

  5. Excellent Post! I can correlate myself to almost all the points you mentioned. Thanks for telling everybody to not to take managers job as “thankless” one.

    Point 8 in your list made me think to not to give unnecessary competition to my peers, infact, being in the same shoe, I should try to support them.

  6. Thanks Esther, many people forget about that.

    It exposes why promoting technically excellent people into management roles, while might looks like a sensible solution covers lack of career progression paths on the technical side.

    I remember one of the best bits of advice when I stepped up into a management role: “Remember, today you job has changed completely. You have to adopt a dramatically different mental model. You success will depend on that.” I was lucky though to be given some really good guidance and support.

  7. Nice compilation.

    Though formal training is good and would really help, I feel that it has got a lot to do with reading and discussing about different perspectives of people in management and see how I could fit those to my values. Trainings are good in a way to help in networking and learning from others’ experience.

    However, people in middle management roles are expected to take ownership of things that are not defined clearly. Most of the times they do not have so much control on many things. Most of the decisions are top down, some information get lost when pushed to the top. This way middle managers to do not get support from upper management too and are left on their own.

    Many tend to feel it is “thankless” to be in that role and generally tend to appear good to the upper level and hide their innate attributes of a good leader.

  8. OK, now you have told us everything about managers we already know. Tell us something we don’t know? Like, what exactly are their jobs?

    This article sums it up for me.. The problem with middle management is they are largely unneeded and their jobs are mostly made up.

    In case you haven’t noticed, the majority of workers are pretty much self-directed and know what their job is and what needs to be done.

    I look to the sad state of American management as to one of the major reasons our country is failing.

    • I have worked in an immature organization (i.e. little to no structure, policies, processes or understanding of roles) with a severe lack of even semi-skilled managers. It’s where I learned to appreciate that all organizations need some amount of management.

      For mature organizations that have too much management, it’s like other aspects of life: too much of any one thing is not good.

  9. Great points, Esther! As a middle manager, I definitely have experienced or seen each of them. It’s funny. As an Engineer and Project Manager, I was quite critical of my managers (though not as critical as some). As I spend more time in management, I have developed more perspective and wisdom on their situation. I am a lot more forgiving today (but not on the really, truly bad points).

    One thing I did learn early on is to offer my help to my manager, if there was something I could help with. It made both our lives easier and I learned more about management and business along the way.

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