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Stuck in the middle: The role of the middle manager

Georgina Fuller

Georgina Fuller asks if the role of the middle manager is becoming defunct, and if an age where social technology is becoming increasingly important, will we need fewer managers in the future?

When our eldest son was a baby we took him to a wedding dressed in a designer babygro a friend had kindly given us. The light blue ensemble had a tie woven into it and short sleeves and was, by that stage, rather tight on our bonny boy.  With his bald, chubby and somewhat stern (he was teething) demeanour, several people joked that he looked like a ‘typical middle manager.’  But why have middle managers become so unpopular and something of a joke? Is it because there are, quite simply, so many of them? 

There are now around five million managers in the UK, 10 times more than there were 100 years ago, according to a recent BBC report. It seems we have become slightly obsessed with management roles and the ‘middle manager’ in particular has become increasingly ubiquitous. People who don’t even manage anyone now have management titles from office manager to train managers. Has the situation got out of control and do we need to start thinking about trimming the fat?

Absolutely, says Tom Holmes, director of HR consultancy Veran Performance. “At Veran, where we study such things, we have found that the ratio of people per manager should be, at the very worst, one to eight and, more likely, one to twenty,” he explains. “However, with a workforce of 29.76 million, five million of which are managers, the current UK people to manager ratio is around one to five; which shows how insanely saturated with managers our workforce really is.” 

In addition to the population explosion of managers, there is the hotly debated question of what exactly they are all doing and whether it is simply needless job creation. “In our experience the primary role and function of the middle manager is where the biggest issue lies,” says Holmes.  “When we have surveyed these managers they tell us that: 1) they don’t actually see themselves as managers and 2) they don’t have a clear view of what a manager’s role actually is.”  

Part of the problem, according to leadership coach John Ainley, is that we all want to feel valued and organisations have, in the past, tapped into this. “We all seek opportunities to confirm our self-worth,” he says. “Organisations recognised and met this need by providing increasing numbers of middle management roles, to illustrate they valued the individual and to provide a career ladder to kept workers satisfied with their lot.” In time, however, middle managers have come to be seen as the ‘pantomime villains’ of the company. “They’re not involved in strategy nor do they understand what the customer wants, therefore where is their value add?” says Ainley.  As organisations have started to understand the opportunities offered by self-managed teams, the middle manager’s role has become increasingly unnecessary. Managers have, subsequently, begun to feel anxious and responded by clinging onto what little power they have. “This behaviour reinforces their role as blockers in organisations and is a part of a cycle that will see their role end,” says Ainley.

However, not everyone thinks that managers are in decline or that they don’t carry serious clout in many organisations.  Dr Bernd Vogel, director of the engaging leadership centre at Henley Business School, believes there is often a misunderstanding about what exactly middle managers are and what they do. “The middle manager’s primary role involves managing (goal setting, monitoring, developing others, recognizing others, etc), but also leading (visioning, challenging, thinking long-term) and, in most cases, still a bit of doing.”


Middle managers are particularly crucial as change implementers, Vogel says, because they translate the broad message from the upper echelons into the reality of smaller sections of an organisation. “Clever organisations use the familiarity of middle managers with the market, people, and the environment to learn about changes in these fields for strategic and tactical decisions,” he explains.


There is no denying, however, that the phenomenal growth of social technology in business is going to have a major impact on organisations, says Simon Foster, director at Kenexa consultancy. “The old role of the manager in supervising staff and being a reference point will become less necessary as employees network directly,” he comments. “Who uses an old Encyclopaedia Britannica when there’s a state-of-the-art online search engine at your fingertips? In just a few clicks, people can see how colleagues have found solutions to similar challenges, speak to internal subject matter experts around the globe or work on projects together in virtual communities.” 


This self-service model could render the stereotypical management role virtually defunct and the managers of the future are really going to have to prove their worth. “We will need fewer managers, but the ones we do have will need to add real value in a less hierarchical way than ever before,” says Foster.  


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