Magazine article Training & Development

Reengineering Middle Management

Magazine article Training & Development

Reengineering Middle Management

Article excerpt

Contrary to rumors, middle managers aren't extinct--not yet. But to survive, they must learn to juggle new roles. Here are some ways to help them.

To borrow from Mark Twain, "The rumors concerning the middle manager's death have been greatly exaggerated."

Despite all the layoffs, the restructurings, and some suggestions that the corporate longevity of middle managers is about as long as the life span of a fruit fly, thousands of middle managers continue to collect paychecks. But to live long and prosper, they must reengineer their roles and retool their skills to fit less hierarchical, more flexible, team-based workplaces known as horizontal, virtual, or network organizations.

Traditionally, many middle managers have acted as coordinators, controllers, and gatekeepers of information. In network-style organizations, such middle managers have come to be viewed as obsolete obstructionists.

In network organizations, employees communicate directly with each other, customers, and suppliers through technology.

New roles

In this crazy infobahn world in which many employees' offices are wherever their laptops and cellular phones are, how do middle managers stay relevant? How do they add value to their organizations and how do they stay employable?

One group of middle managers who had recently survived a massive downsizing was clearly confused. The managers began to question their roles. They were getting the message that top management expected them to create partnerships with customers and to coach and facilitate their staff members, while getting their own work done. One exasperated middle manager said, "I don't know whether I'm a boss, coach, or servant--or whether I'm on or off which team."

Interviews with more than 100 managers and their bosses, staff members, co-workers, and customers at Mobil Oil, Hewlett-Packard, and other network organizations show that middle managers are trying to juggle multiple--and sometimes cross-purpose--expectations in an unpredictable workplace. Faced with new demands, it's no wonder that middle managers feel caught in the chaos. But they have no choice: They must change, or they will become dispensable.

That doesn't mean that middle managers will just have to do more with less. It means a major shift in how they structure their roles and work activities. They will have to be continually learning and making value--added contributions.

Middle managers are juggling the expectations of three different groups:

* senior managers

* staff members

* external customers and co-workers.

Specifically, top managers expect middle managers to have bottom-line and strategic accountability. They expect middle managers to solve problems, make tough decisions, and take risks. They expect them to focus on customers and process improvement.

Senior executives want to hear fewer reasons, excuses, and stories from middle managers. They expect middle managers to discard attitudes of entitlement and forget the status quo. They want middle managers to exert less control and to stop fighting for turf.

But senior executives also expect middle managers to remain constant in some aspects. They want middle managers to continue to be dedicated and loyal. They want them to control costs, perform at high standards, be flexible, and try to keep everyone happy.

As for the staff members, they expect from middle managers more leadership, communication about the future, coaching, feedback, support, and empowerment. Workers want less bureaucratic red tape, less walk that doesn't match the talk, less supervision, less concern for numbers only, and fewer obstacles to performing their jobs.

What hasn't changed is that workers still expect middle managers to provide a comfortable working environment, to keep them informed, to provide them with necessary resources, and to help them manage their careers. …

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