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WSJ Take on Middle Management

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 
I found this article interesting, but also surprising and depressing at the same time

"Middle managers really want to feel that their company is loyal to them," says Jacob Spilman, a Portland, Ore.-based counselor who specializes in treating workplace stress and is creating a series of online seminars aimed at helping middle managers cope. "More and more often, that's a fantasy," he says.

What It's Like Being a Middle Manager Today
somewhere between senior leadership and the front lines, overseeing three direct reports along with three other subordinates. Her job affords her the freedom to run projects and pitch new ideas, but it's not without constraints.
Midlevel managers—whose ranks numbered 10.8 million in the U.S. last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—are often dismissed as paper-pushers, perpetuators of groupthink and symbols of organizational bloat. But management experts say they're an essential layer of a company, turning top-line strategy into action, day by unglamorous day. Yet managing without much autonomy is stressful, and opportunities for getting ahead are limited.
It's easy for a middle manager to resemble "a rat on a wheel," working hard but not actually advancing, says Lynn Isabella, an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.
She earns a good living, making more than $150,000 a year—nationally, the median earnings for middle managers just tops $90,000—but it doesn't go far in Marin County, Calif.

My parking lot right now is looking pretty empty, too ..
post #2 of 12
edit: I apologize, I would be upper management in the context of this thread.
Edited by i10casual - 8/7/13 at 11:15am
post #3 of 12
Middle management is the reason companies remain stagnant or fail. Upper management has too much visibility for investors, auditors, analysts,press etc. Middle management is that useless layer of corporate bureaucrats whose only goal is to justify their existence in a company by constantly spinning wheels blowing up smoke and essentially pretending to be involved in perpetual process improvement which at best doesn't cost extra to the Co.
Middle managers are relics of 18/19 C. industrialisation age when most workers were illiterate or semi-literate and you needed some clerk with a modicoum of intelligence to tell all these workers what to do every day. You needed these middle layers to supervise, to direct and to teach basic work skills.
In 21C. these positions in large part are completely useless. Most workers today are college educated , computer savvy and do not need constant supervision to produce results. To boot many workers are younger and more educated than their so called managers and often possess not only better technical skills , which m-managers long forgot to update, but have higher and more relevant education than their supervisors.
Most M-managers are in perpetual fear of being irrelevant and thus they are the ones who create the most disfunction and bureaucratic idiocy that corporate world is famous for.
My conclusion is m-managers are not simply useless, they are often detrimental to your organisation.
post #4 of 12

I'm going to disagree with Medwed. Harshly. For a few reasons:

  1. Lower level employees may have more technical skills, but for many roles that hardly matters. They lack experience, which matters more
  2. Lower level employees don't have insight into the upper-level workings of the company. It's usually impossible to have this insight and actually do a day-to-day job. But, without that insight, one often can't prioritize
  3. Lower level employees don't have the experience or rank to pick their battles. Someone in another department is stepping on your toes? Those political battles have to be fought at a higher level. Yeah, it's nice to say those battles shouldn't happen, but resources in a company are finite and people are going to have to battle over them. No company is without its turf wars, even if they stem not from aggression but from confusion about where lines are drawn


Upper management is doing the big, high level strategy. Lower level employees are doing the day to day tasks. Someone needs to bridge that gap. More importantly, there needs to be a step where people learn how to transition between the two. Sure, if you're a guy whose only job is doing the same reporting day-in and day-out and is happy with that then yes, your middle manager is probably annoying (even if you don't realize how many times he's been in budget meetings and screamed bloody murder about how important the report you do is and how it can't be automated or given to someone else.) Maybe if you're a coder who just does his piece of whatever project is you think your middle manager is annoying (even if you don't realize that he's the one fighting for budget and explaining milestones and pushing back when the sales team this project is for is making insane, unreasonable demands and expectations.) But if you're someone doing project-based work, interacting with senior leaders that are 20 years older than you and operating on an entirely different plane of job function than you do, and one day hoping to be there, then you are pretty damn happy with middle managers. People have this weird belief that they just sit there and tell others what to do. Yes, some are like that, but I more find those with that belief to be people with zero aspirations and zero understanding of how much work that middle manager does, usually protecting his or her own employees from the unreasonable expectations of senior leaders or managers outside the direct organization who have lots of demands but are nowhere near close enough to the particularly day-to-day operations to know how unreasonable they are.

Lastly, someone has to have responsibility for when things go wrong. Someone has to have their career on the stake there.


Let me just say that my last role did not have a middle manager. We were a team of "senior managers" without any direct reports, and we reported directly to an SVP (the company of over 10,000 employees only had 15 SVPs, so they were very high up.) It was a bit of a nightmare. Other SVPs demanded access to us that we couldn't easily push back on, everything was a priority which made nothing a priority, we had no more experienced mentors to lean on for questions, and we were really routinely thrown into situations above our pay grade. We desperately needed someone between him and ourselves to really function with one foot in his office and one foot in our cubes, as he was too busy for this stuff. Instead our work always suffered from split priorities, unfair politics or just vague guidance. When we finally got a middle manager he fixed all of that, and morale improved simply from having someone with the time to do a biweekly touchbase and with the time to occasionally pull aside, vent and problem solve with.

post #5 of 12
IMHO, You are describing ideal situations that are probably take place in Corp. world somewhere, sometimes among some lucky people.
Middle management fighting for it's employees and pushing back to upper M. and so on and so forth, ; that is ideal situation in ideal co.. Most m-managers that I have observed are afraid to do all those things you have described and would rather press down on their staff than push back to VP or President at the meeting.
Edited by Medwed - 8/6/13 at 1:12pm
post #6 of 12

But that's bad people not bad structure.

I know American developers that spend far more time screwing around on the internet than working. That doesn't mean I think that the class of American Developer as a whole is outdated, it just means I know people that need to be canned in order to change a bad culture in the group.

post #7 of 12
Originally Posted by judgeholden View Post

But that's bad people not bad structure.
I know American developers that spend far more time screwing around on the internet than working. That doesn't mean I think that the class of American Developer as a whole is outdated, it just means I know people that need to be canned in order to change a bad culture in the group.


Chicken or egg question?
You make an example straight out of "Middle management manual"smile.gif
IMHO, nothing wrong with developer screwing around as long as he is brilliant enough to deliver.
I don't buy into notions of discipline that belong in 19 century factory.
post #8 of 12
Thread Starter 
I see all the regular posters are above middle management, of course shog[1].gif

^^^interesting points above
post #9 of 12
I find middle management necessary in my field (government). I do the day to day nitty gritty work, the managers get to deal with admin shit half their time (implementing re-organizations, turf wars on shrinking budgets, designing performance metrics, working groups on morale and other shit, time sheets, etc.) and float up decisions on work product I give them. At this point in my career and level of ambivalence at my current office (don't feel its my manager or organization's fault), I'm more than happy to have someone fight the organizational turf wars for me. Also it's great to have someone knowledgeable bat for you on an issue to senior staff that have bigger shit to worry about.
post #10 of 12
Hey, wanna read a 50000 word blog series about this?
post #11 of 12
I know in my industry (pharma) sales reps and mid managers make the company go. Everyone else is secondary. We make the money.
post #12 of 12
What a load of bunk is being spouted in this thread.

Always be wary of anyone making sweeping generalizations, especially business writers (whose job it is to sell pet theories), but maybe even moreso strangers on the internet. Some strangers even have track records of spouting bunk and are to be doubly viewed with skepticism.

Middle management remains relevant and necessary in most businesses and most industries. It may be true that certain technology advances and new business techniques have reduced the need for some forms of it, but as some have pointed out, middle management is the layer that connects strategy with production/implementation. In some arenas, middle management is even more necessary than ever before. Example: any firm that does any kind of engineering needs project managers to plan budgets and activities, juggle competing priorities, and report progress to senior management, and that role is best segregated from the people doing the engineering work. With the pressure to perform in R&D ever more critical and competitive, this is a fundamental example of a vital middle management role.

Of course, as with anything, good implementation is crucial. There are companies that fail because middle management is bloated and ineffective. But plenty of others fail because top management, or rank-and-file, are bloated and ineffective. In each case there is an element of whatever group attempting to justify its own existence and protect itself. Why? Because each group is made out of human beings. Perhaps it's true that middle management is particularly easy to pick on, particularly in big companies, because there is so much of it. There are a number of economic and societal factors that I could speculate contribute to that, but that's really another topic.

The bottom line is that in an effectively managed company, middle management has as much to contribute as anyone else. If it's not delivering, it is due to poor implementation of the business model. Ultimate responsibility for that lies with top management.
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