Solving the middle management crisis

Middle managers have been misunderstood and misused for decades. It’s time to recognize their impact – and rethink their role.

Historically, middle managers have held a critical role within organizations, acting as the connection between leadership and frontline workers. But ask today’s senior leaders their opinion of the contribution made by middle managers, and the answers are unlikely to be entirely positive. What happened? 

Perspectives on middle managers hit a tipping point in the early 1990s when the ‘bloat’ experienced by many corporations was attributed to middle managers. Ever since, this line of thinking has remained common. It has stunted the growth of middle managers and left organizations with a middle layer of ‘permafrost’ – managers who have refused to evolve – or, in some cases, no middle layer at all. 

When the pandemic hit, this mindset was suddenly challenged. The rapid transition to remote and hybrid work proved to leaders that middle managers provide an essential connection to the front line – and made people management more important than ever. Middle managers can add tremendous bottom-line value to an organization, and they are one of the biggest factors affecting the wellbeing and experience of frontline workers – but they need tools, training and autonomy to perform their role effectively. Business leaders need to ensure middle managers can make a positive difference and realize growth in today’s evolving business environment. 

The making of a crisis

The current condition of middle managers is the end-product of organizational change, productivity increases, remote work and talent management – or lack thereof. 

Over recent years we have seen ‘flatter, faster’ companies rapidly scaling, only to realize that no one was responsible for leadership and coaching. Fast-growing companies didn’t consider what managers needed, or how to construct the role. Meanwhile, companies with better-developed structures in place were built more like bureaucracies than smart talent-management shops. The result? An overworked yet underutilized group of employees who are typically tasked with catch-all assignments that no one else is willing, able or available to do. 

In essence, today’s middle managers are being put to the wrong use. They don’t have time to manage their people. Our research shows they spend, on average, three-quarters of their time on tasks other than managing their teams. This mix of administrative and individual contributor work with increasing people management expectations has left more than 40% of middle managers with feelings of burnout – more than any other job level. It’s no wonder many have rethought their relationship with work: their disconnected duties are overwhelming the true value they can provide. 

A pivotal role

Middle managers handle a full range of leadership and coaching responsibilities which often go unnoticed. They serve as the critical link between workers on the front line and senior leaders who are shaping and guiding strategy. They are vital for continuously coaching team members, and must also connect the higher-level strategy and purpose with teams’ day-to-day work. 

Making this connection is not easy. There’s an enormous gulf between executives and frontline workers when it comes to purpose: 85% of executives feel their work holds purpose, while only 15% of the front line feel the same. 

Middle managers’ position at the center of the organization also makes them vital people connectors. Their role requires they build a network across teams to solve problems brought to them by senior leaders. From this vantage point, middle managers can see how strategy reaches those at ground level, allowing them to share insights with senior leaders to guide changes throughout the year. All the while, it also informs their ability to evaluate employee performance, provide feedback, and effectively motivate – which in turn impacts an organization’s ability to retain top talent. 

There is a lot of value at stake in the middle manager role. Senior leaders would do well to remember that people leave managers, not companies. According to a Gallup survey, around half of US workers have left a previous job because of a poor manager. Yet the reverse is also true: people stay with organizations when they feel valued by their managers. 

How to deploy middle managers effectively 

Senior leaders may acknowledge how important middle managers are to their business, but without investing in managers’ success, organizations are bound to miss out on their value and are guaranteed to lose them in the long run. 

To meet the demands of the new world of work, senior leaders should rethink and reshape the role. A McKinsey survey of more than 700 middle managers shows that almost half in the US, and 42% globally, said they disagreed that, or were unsure whether, their organization had set them up to manage people. 

How can middle managers excel? We must reinvent the role. Tomorrow’s managers should bear little resemblance to what they are right now. Instead, they should connect people, play a role in recruitment and retention, ensure they’re equipped for their work, and bring out the best in their team. 

This will require a complete overhaul, but doing so has a tremendous impact on the business. McKinsey research found that when it comes to deploying 11 key management behaviors, top-quartile organizations realize from three to twenty-one times great total shareholder return over five years. These five actions can help make it happen. 

Axe the administrative work

Managers spend, on average, a day of work each week on administrative tasks. The tasks that fall into their lap actively hinder great managers from being coaches, connectors and navigators: 30% of middle managers say unsustainable work demands are getting in the way of fulfilling their true potential as leaders.

To get real business value from middle managers, senior leaders must remove these tasks from managers’ plates and allow them to prioritize their people. Taking away administrative work that can be automated, moved to someone else or done away with entirely offers managers more time and energy to spend with team members. 

Create career paths for top performers

Being a great manager takes specific skills – and there is more than one way to use them. Modern organizations need to reflect this in how they build career paths for their middle managers. 

Unfortunately, many companies do not offer the necessary training to sharpen their managers’ skills or explore new responsibilities within the role. Middle managers understand the importance of training for their employees and themselves, but often have trouble getting buy-in and budget from senior executives focused on the short-term bottom line. 

To help, senior leaders should ask themselves a few key questions. Are my managers getting coaching? Are they getting support for their mental health and burnout? Can they follow the career path best suited to them? If the answer to any of these questions is no, it is time to make some changes. 

Walmart is one company that has recognized the importance of training and career paths. Through Walmart Academy, the business provides classroom training and on-the-job coaching to its associates, with the goal of moving them into supervisory and management positions. The company, which is the world’s largest private employer, has also invested more than $1 billion to offer employees free training in technology, health and wellness – the idea being to anticipate the future skills the company will need. 

Walmart has also started a College2Career program, where recent college graduates receive classroom and hands-on training. Upon completion of the program, the participants can apply for a job as an “emerging coach” at a starting annual salary of $65,000. From there, they can move on to become store managers, and command six-figure salaries, in just a few years. 

Training has the power to build better managers – if companies and their leaders are willing to invest. 

Offer freedom, flexibility, and trust

Trust is a word that middle managers use a lot. They want their bosses to trust them to get things done and make changes in their own way, in turn gaining the trust and respect of their team. Too often, however, managers don’t feel trusted by those above them. 

Senior leaders must resist the urge to exert control from the top. Instead, they should trust their managers to build department-specific strategies and practices. 

This relationship is a two-way street. Some managers are like faucets – they hear an edict from senior leadership and relay it in full, neglecting to tailor the message so it’s relevant for their teams. The best managers are like sieves. They filter through directives and apply them to their teams in a way that makes sense. In this sense, trust should be given, and earned. The result will be a healthier, more collaborative environment at every level of organizations. 

Promote and reward within middle management

Great middle managers are at home in the center of the action. However, many senior leaders see promotion out of the manager role as the only way to reward a job well done – neglecting these employees’ natural abilities and moving them into a role they may or may not enjoy. In contrast, middle managers actually most often say they want their work to be rewarded with additional autonomy and responsibility, followed by bonuses and raises. 

At Waffle House, new grill operators start by learning how to make each dish to the chain’s exacting standards. With experience and training, these employees can rise to the level of master grill operator, with a higher salary and more responsibilities, and eventually progress to call themselves “Elvis of the Grill”. While some who achieve this level take on more responsibilities, the goal is to keep them doing what they do best. 

The lesson for senior leaders is that promotion is not the only way to reward middle managers. Salary increases, more autonomy and honorifics that recognize accomplishments can be just as effective. 

Make management more attractive

In line with the new reward philosophy, middle management shouldn’t be viewed as a way station to senior positions. It should be seen be an attractive and lucrative career itself. One way to make that clear is by placing the most qualified and valued people into these middle management roles – then training and rewarding them. 

That means recognizing that middle managers are the best conduit to deliver purpose to junior employees. Senior leaders should communicate a clear and compelling purpose statement that will resonate with their managers, who can tailor it to their employees. Leaders should listen to managers’ feedback about whether it’s making an impact, too. 

Treating employees as people with unique and full lives is key to making middle management more attractive. Legendary hospitality company Ritz-Carlton has realized this, capturing its philosophy in its motto: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” That means getting to know people on an individual level – and who better than middle managers to do that? 

Yael Ron, general manager for Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, told Forbes in 2020 that the most important factor in providing excellent customer service is to “ensure you support your team members with their dreams of growth. Understand that believing in each of them, and taking part in their journey of development, is what matters.”

The more senior leaders take care to understand workers’ individual purpose and values, the more they enable them to achieve the company’s overall purpose. 

What’s next? 

Senior leaders are in the eye of the storm of automation, hybrid work and stiff competition for talent. Taking direct action to foster a new generation of strong, confident managers may be the ideal strategy to weather this environment and come out on the other side even stronger. 

Executives can change the way things run. By redefining the role of middle managers, they can get the most from their teams – and realize the growth they’ve been missing. 

Bill Schaninger is senior partner emeritus, and Bryan Hancock and Emily Field are partners, at McKinsey. They are authors of Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work.