Middle managers

Redefining the middle manager's job

September 19, 2011: 10:44 AM ET

Almost by definition, middle managers have a rough time of it. But more companies are looking to make better use of these managers by giving them more time to coach their staff members.

By Gary M. Stern, contributor

FORTUNE – Imagine the plight of the middle manager. She's trying to please her bosses, interpret their messages and convey them to her staff, meet financial targets, give consistently tricky performance reviews, and grapple with ever-changing goals. Talk about being caught in the middle.

As middle managers' workloads have intensified, their ranks have dwindled. In the mid-1990s, many companies decided to lay off their middle managers. According to Manager Redefined by Towers Watson consultants Tom Davenport and Stephen D. Harding, cuts in supervisory positions in 1994 accounted for 18% of layoffs even though managers made up just 8% of the workforce.

Overwhelmed by responsibilities, never having enough time to do the work, the middle manager's job at many companies became too complex for anyone to handle. At the same time, companies often promote their best performers to managerial roles, and there's no guarantee that these workers possessed the right skills to succeed.

In a 2010 Towers Watson study of 20,000 global employees of large firms, 48% of the respondents said their immediate manager didn't have enough time to handle their responsibilities or possess the right skills to improve poor performers.

In response,  Davenport and Harding have proposed several changes in how middle managers should operate. Davenport describes the most effective style of leading as "offstage management." Offstage managers focus on "managing the environment, not the people." The old-fashioned manager hovered over the employee, often lapsed into micromanaging, operated autocratically and ruled by fear.

The offstage manager operates more like a theatrical director. "The director creates an environment for everyone to succeed and then steps out of the way,"Davenport says.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle, says middle managers are in a "sandwich situation."  They're squeezed between the interests of upper managers and employees. More

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