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Middle managers serve the most important role — but companies waste their talent

The talent of management should be unleashed toward the management of talent. Many companies are doing the opposite.
A middle manager's hand emerging from the water.
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Key Takeaways
  • Middle managers are the people who are at least once removed from the front line and at least a layer below the senior leadership.
  • High-performing middle managers are the beating heart of any successful talent ecosystem.
  • As the nature of work changes at a breakneck pace, middle managers will play an increasingly vital role. But companies aren’t using them properly.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work by Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field. Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Consider these challenges middle managers, across all types of industries, are facing every day: a lack of time, a lack of resources, a lack of appreciation, and a lack of agency to perform one of the most important roles — no, the most important role — at an organization: managing talent. 

We define middle managers as the people who are at least once removed from the front line and at least a layer below the senior leadership. From this pivotal position, a middle manager’s job is to bring out the best in their people, and in that way bring out the best in their organizations. 

They do this best by serving as navigators, connectors, and coaches. But in most cases senior leaders, failing to realize this, are putting their middle managers to the wrong use. They are using them as a kind of catch-all to do all the tasks that no one else is willing, able, or available to do. As a result, managers are suffering under a host of burdens and stresses that have stretched them beyond their limits. And they are being blamed for outcomes that are not their fault.

A survey McKinsey conducted of 700 middle managers shows just how serious the problem is across a range of industries. Almost half of managers in the United States, and 42% globally, said they disagreed or were unsure whether their organizations had set them up to be successful managers of people. 

Overall, the managers said that they spent more of their time on individual contributor work than on any other type of work. We’ve seen this with many of our clients. Executives promote someone to a management role and then expect them to continue doing some of their old job, too. Or they expect managers to perform frontline roles to make up for staff shortages.

The managers who responded to the McKinsey survey also said they were spending an average of nearly 20% of their time, or one full workday per week, on administrative work. And it probably isn’t a coincidence that they also felt that the biggest obstacle to their success as people managers was organizational bureaucracy.

The time is right to focus on managers because the nature of work is changing at a breakneck pace.

Too many organizations have lost sight of the fact that the talent of management — the real energy, creativity, and focus — should be unleashed toward the management of talent. Put another way, the best managers attract and keep the best people. We firmly believe well-performing individuals in well-structured middle management roles are the secret weapon in the war for talent, a term that McKinsey introduced nearly 25 years ago. Now, faced with the perfect storm of automation, hybrid work, an impending economic downturn, a scarcity of skilled workers and profound shifts in attitudes, whether an organization wins or loses will depend largely on its managers.

But right now, many managers are simply not equipped to take on the challenge. That’s because the headwinds they face are just too strong. In talking with middle managers, some common themes emerged:

  • Many felt that it was their responsibility to protect their teams from misguided executives. More than one mentioned having to shelter their employees from a toxic leader higher up in the hierarchy. A common thread: Senior leaders just don’t understand the details of a task or strategy and too often ask for the impossible.
  • Middle managers understand the importance of training — for both their employees and themselves — but often have trouble getting buy-in and budget from senior executives who are focused on the short-term bottom line.
  • A word that middle managers used a lot: trust. They want their bosses to trust them to get things done and make changes in their own way, and that’s how they gain the trust of their team. But all too often, they don’t feel they are receiving that trust from above.
  • Some would prefer to stay in their jobs but see no choice but to seek other positions because the reward systems — compensation, equity, bonuses, and promotional opportunities — just aren’t in place if they want to grow within their organizations.
  • There is a huge psychological strain that goes along with having this job — one that affects both work and home.

The time is right to focus on managers because the nature of work is changing at a breakneck pace, requiring a new set of people skills. Workplace communication, while easier than ever because of advanced technology, is also more abundant, complex, and confusing than ever. Automation is altering which tasks can be done by humans and which by machines, making some people’s jobs obsolete. And the rise of remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, has led to a fraying of the ties that bind employees together.

Middle managers will play a vital role in dealing with all of these shifts, and many others. They will serve as filters and translators between the executive suite and the front line. They will rethink and re-bundle jobs as they shift large swaths of workers to new roles. And they will be key to restoring the human connections that technology and the pandemic tore apart.

Over and over, as we’ve consulted with organizations, we have seen middle managers being overlooked as a way to improve productivity, boost retention, motivate staff, and create a shared sense of purpose. That’s why we believe that their reputations, reward systems, and job roles need a serious overhaul.

We want more senior leaders to realize that if their middle managers seem unnecessary or underutilized, it’s probably because they aren’t being given the tools, the training, and the autonomy to do their jobs effectively.


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