Feature Article - May/June 2015

Managing Managers

Getting the Middle on Board

By Brian Summerfield


Middle managers aren't happy. Not only that, but they're the least happy cohort across all organizations.

That's the claim made by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman. They shared that view—one backed by research that involved more than 320,000 personnel at all levels in a variety of enterprises—in an article published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2014.

Zenger and Folkman wrote that this wasn't a finding they expected to uncover. After all, middle managers would seem to be in an organizational "sweet spot," with neither the low pay and lack of prestige that come from being at the bottom of the totem pole, nor the extreme scrutiny and pressure that come from being at the top.

But this group had a number of complaints. They felt overworked and undervalued. They believed their jobs held no significant purpose or opportunities for advancement. But the biggest reason they were unhappy was that they weren't satisfied with the people leading them. And as the link between the drivers of strategy and the executors in most companies that have more than a few employees, this is an issue that can seriously hamper an organization's overall performance.

In a sense, this is a problem that transcends rewards and recognition programs. But it's one that can also be addressed—at least in part—by those same programs. Here are some key things to keep in mind when trying to engage and revitalize middle management.

Who They Are

The term "middle management" can be a bit nebulous. Some take it to include line managers, while others strictly define it as being the tier just below the executive level. And the numbers of people they manage are all over the place: It can be counted on one hand in some cases and measured in the dozens or even hundreds in others, depending on the size and structure of the organization. And it might be none at all, as the primary responsibility of some managers is centered on a project or process, rather than actual direct reports.

Also, the training and preparation they've received for their management roles aren't always consistent, even within the same company. Some earned advanced degrees and certificates, served in rotational assignments or worked with mentors to help them take on a manager position. Others learned everything they knew about management after they took the job. Some always aspired to move up to a managerial role—and even higher. Others were specialists in a technical area who stuck around and had no opportunity for raises or promotions unless they moved into management.

For the purposes of this article, we can consider middle managers as the people within any organization who are responsible for tactical tasks performed by employees other than themselves. We can also say the following of them:

  • While some are younger high-achievers or professionals nearing retirement, most of them are — not too surprisingly —in the middle stages of their careers. They've got a decade or two of experience under their belts. In demographic terms, that means the majority of middle managers are either gen Xers or the oldest of the millennials.
  • Consequently, middle managers are often being pulled in two different directions in their lives: They're getting more responsibility and authority (and often spending more time) at work, but they're also experiencing personal milestones like starting families, buying their first homes and taking initial steps to grow personal wealth.