The Joy of Middle Management

21492542_mSo, you’ve finally made it to middle management. You’ve arrived at that magical place where you are responsible and accountable for the performance of a team but you still have limited authority and influence in your organization. Welcome to the Danger Zone!

Why is it so dangerous? Because, if you are not careful, this is where careers come to die. At least that’s the conclusion of Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article called Why Middle Managers Are So Unhappy, they discovered the unhappiest employees are, in fact, middle managers.

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” ~ Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, Stealers Wheel

They looked at data from 320,000 of the most unengaged and uncommitted employees from a variety of organizations and focused on the bottom 5%. They wanted to understand the driving factors behind the most disgruntled employees. What they found were frustrated employees “stuck in the middle of everything.”

The most common profile for employees in the bottom 5% was:

  • They work as middle managers
  • They earned a college degree, but not a graduate degree
  • They have 5 to 10 years of tenure
  • They receive a good (as opposed to a superior or a terrible) performance rating

The truth is, it can be tough if you find yourself “stuck” in middle management. It can lead to frustration and disillusionment, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If you have made it to middle management, it’s because someone thinks you have what it takes to lead people and that’s one of the greatest honors bestowed upon any individual. So how do you avoid getting “stuck” in the middle?

Let me suggest five things you can do as a middle manager to avoid becoming an unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employee:

Contentment. One of the biggest causes for frustration for middle managers is the desire to be promoted to the next job. I’ve seen many managers so focused on trying to get to their next position that they never actually do their current job. Be content. You’ve been asked to lead people, lead them well. Enjoy your time as a middle manager.

“If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

Excellence. While you are in middle management, be excellent in everything you do. Instead of focusing on your next job, set your sights on mastering this one. If you can build a reputation for performing at a high level with a smaller organization, you will likely be considered for larger role.

Education. Mastering your job means learning everything you can about being a valuable leader in your company. Use your time as a middle manager to continue to educate yourself. Read business books, take courses that will strengthen your weaknesses, complete an advanced degree, complete an industry certification, join industry groups, volunteer for challenging assignments, or find a mentor in your company to learn from. Most companies offer a variety of ways to continue your education. Take advantage of them all. The more you know, the more valuable you will be for your company.

Commitments. Become a trusted performer in your organization. Senior managers are looking for people who get things done. They are looking for leaders who do what they say they are going to do. Build a reputation for meeting your commitments and honoring your promises.

Exploration. Use your time in middle management to figure out where you get the most satisfaction out of your work. Is it executing a large project or landing a significant order? Is it leading a kaizen event or executing a new marketing strategy? Is it becoming a functional expert or focusing more on general management? Expose yourself to as many diverse opportunities as you can to learn what you enjoy doing. This will help prepare you for what you want to do in your next assignment.

Middle management doesn’t have to be a place where careers go to die. With the right attitude and focus, your time in middle management can be the best years of your work life. It’s a time where you can master the art of leading people, learn to perform at a high level, continue your education, build a reputation for meeting commitments, and explore what you enjoy doing. The key is to become a trusted and valuable asset to senior management. Does it mean that doing these things will get you promoted to the next level? Maybe or maybe not. What it will do is give you a lot more satisfaction in your job and keep you away from that bottom 5% of unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employees.

What do think? Is it possible to avoid getting “stuck?” Are there other things that can be done to avoid the middle management trap? How much does your boss or company influence your ability to continue to grow? What options do you have if you find yourself stuck? Let me know your thoughts.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article was published on jonsrennie.com and LinkedIn.com on January 20, 2015. It has been view over 115,000 times.

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2 thoughts on “The Joy of Middle Management

  1. When I share my experiences with my team and others, I describe myself as a Professional Mid Level Leader. This is the perfect position to be in if you choose the correct way. You are close enough to have a direct impact on your team members personal and professional lives and you are close enough to the executive level to disrupt the status quo! I describe it like this; Your job is to give your team the skills, knowledge and opportunities that allow them to exceed your expectations. Your success is totally dependent on their success! The best thing that can happen is that each member of your team finds their perfect fit. Never be ashamed to be a Middle Level Leader. Thanks for the article!

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  2. Kevin. Thank you for your comments. I agree with you. There is a joy in being close enough to people to be involved in their lives. I actually enjoyed my time in middle management and I wonder why so many people get frustrated by it. Thank you for being a “Professional Mid Level Leader.” The world needs more people like you! Jon

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