the dreary lives of middle managers

Quy Nguyen Huy reviews Paul Osterman’s book, The Truth about Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter, in the latest issue of ASQ. Huy and Osterman both believe that middle managers are understudied contributors to the business world, given their closeness to the actual work, innovation, and productive efforts in our economy. Huy’s own work suggests that middle managers play an important role in sustaining the emotional energy of an organization. Their ability to cultivate positive emotional states has a big impact on an organization’s ability to facilitate successful change. When middle managers resist change and fail to attend to the emotional states of employees, organizational change tends to produce resistance and a lack of commitment. When middle managers attend to the emotional states of their employees, radical change is embraced and is more likely to produce positive outcomes for the organization.

So research indicates that middle managers are critical components to some of the most important organizational outcomes, like innovation and change. This intuition makes it all the more surprising that most organizations have tended to de-prioritize their investment in middle management. Businesses increasingly see middle managers as expendable. The result is that managers have become less committed to and less emotionally invested in their companies. Huy summarizes Osterman on this point:

Osterman suggests that middle managers in U.S. corporations live in a “small world” that has limited horizons. Beyond focusing on their day-to-day jobs and committing to their colleagues, the middle managers he studied saw no larger purpose in what they were doing. This suggests, among other things, that middle managers are neither truly committed to their employers nor fully engaged in executing the firm’s
strategy. This fi nding is supported by Osterman’s survey of recent M.B.A. graduates, who hold a deeply cynical view of their employers.

This finding resonates with my own experience in teaching MBA students, who have already internalized the degraded image of middle managers in the corporate world. At the beginning of each quarter I ask the students to tell me where they see themselves working in 5 and 10 years after graduation. Most students see themselves working up the corporate ladder after five years, presumably in some middle management position. But after 10 years their visions change pretty dramatically.  A few say they hope to be promoted to some executive position. But a surprisingly large number of students say they’d like to be running a nonprofit or charity, starting their own business, or working for an independent investment fund. Few, if any, see themselves as corporate managers. Why is that? I think it’s because, as Osterman and Huy point out, the role of middle manager has become so degraded that it can no longer be equated with success. It’s too bad. Organizations, by making middle management expendable and by paying more and more money to top executives while not giving equivalent income increases to middle management, has unintentionally devalued one of their most important assets. It’s no wonder that new talent sees middle management as small and trivial work.


Written by brayden king

June 9, 2010 at 4:27 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. I know a few middle managers who have this experience, which they mostly relay to me in terms of the following quandary.

    On the one hand, they recognize that more than a cheerleader but like a cheerleader, they must supply and monitor the emotional thrust of employees on project teams.

    On the other hand, they feel expendable mainly because they are often replaced, paid below their value, and, according to folks I know, explanations of project success rarely involve extolling the virtues of their day-to-day, intermediary role.

    However, it is the combination they complain about most: when you feel expendable it take even more energy, and feels even more dehumanizing, to deliver the emotional element to what sociologists call “emotion work.” As that literature would suggest, they describe how emotionally disassociated they become the more the have to “force” themselves to supply the emotional energy for increasingly financially-strapped projects.



    June 9, 2010 at 5:20 pm

  2. […] which is why organizations and groups fascinate me (even as I am often tone-deaf as a member). This missive from one of my sometimes-favorite blogs is equal parts hope and despair: Quy Nguyen Huy reviews […]


  3. This is an interesting post about the understudied role of the middle manager. Our research shows that middle managers are torn, consumed with juggling others’ priorities, confused, powerless and not respected as a result of the systemic conditions they’re in — caught between above and below, with no peer support network. Clearly this is not a state to aspire to but one too many good people are caught up in. Two keys to turn this around that we’ve discovered are 1) for them to maintain their independence of thought and action in the service of the system, and 2) integrate with their peers. Hope this adds to the conversation.


    Karen Oshry

    June 9, 2010 at 10:04 pm

  4. […] an unrelated note, OrgTheory laments the plight of the middle-manager. Oh, Dilbert & Office Space, what have you wrought? I […]


  5. […] say this is true of all kinds of leaders. As I mentioned last week, middle managers, an understudied type of leader, are in many ways the emotional core of their […]


  6. […] mentioned earlier the study involving sending MBAs to India, and the common denigration they receive in our culture. This isn’t a mere matter of counter-cultural hostility to […]


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