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Betwixt and between is how Kirk Girard describes the problems of being a middle manager. “It can feel like purgatory.” As planning manager at Santa Clara County, a local authority in California, he felt he was searching for purpose, “trying to find my role in the organisation”. It led to considerable “gnashing of teeth”.

Behnam Tabrizi, who teaches leadership to mid-level managers including Mr Girard, at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, says “middle management” is a depressing title. “It’s perceived as a negative label — as an obstacle and overhead.” Frustrations felt by middle managers may also include a lack of autonomy.

The fictional Bob Slocum in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened embodies middle management misery. Kurt Vonnegut summed up Slocum’s restlessness in his review of the book: “He mourns the missed opportunities of his youth. He is itchy for raises and promotions, even though he despises his company and the jobs he does . . . He is exhausted. He dreads old age.”

Such characterisations are as enduring as the job itself despite the frequent announcement of its impending death. As technology flattens organisations, so middle managers are deemed dispensable. This year, Zappos, the online shoe retailer, said it would eliminate managers. Its founder, Tony Hsieh, said: “We’re trying to [switch] from a normal hierarchical structure to a system . . . which enables employees to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager.”

From this standpoint, middle managers are cast as superfluous bureaucrats. It is these roles that can be hit by cuts. A report published in 2011 by the King’s Fund, a UK think-tank, highlighted the “sneering” political rhetoric about the National Health Service’s armies of “faceless bureaucrats”. It found that if anything the NHS was under-managed rather than over-managed, disputing the idea of a sagging middle.

With such a war against them it is no wonder that middle managers may be depressed, research by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health discovered recently. The report challenged the idea that it is those who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder that feel the most miserable and anxious. Rather, those in the middle have to absorb the discontent of those below and above, while feeling frustrated that they do not have power to implement change.

This follows research published last year in Harvard Business Review that said the most unhappy staff were not those “with poor performance ratings or the ones in over their heads — people with inadequate training, education, or experience for the job”. On the contrary, the most miserable of the 320,000 employees interviewed were those “stuck in the middle of everything”. These tended to be people with a degree, with five to 10 years’ tenure at the company, work as mid-level managers and who receive a good (rather than brilliant or terrible) performance rating.

Yet the middle manager title is a catch-all, as Bill Wooldridge, professor and managing director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Massachusetts, notes. “This is a very heterogeneous group. Some have exciting roles.” Most people are actually middle managers if you take that role literally, he says. Though Quy Huy, professor of strategic management at Insead, defines them as “people who are two levels below the CEO and one level above first-line supervisor”.

Joan Kingsley, organisational psychotherapist and author of The Fear-Free Organisation: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture, says that age may contribute to the gloom of people in mid-management.

“For those who have not achieved their goals, there is likely to be a crisis of confidence; fears that it’s too late; that they have missed the boat. This is not surprising given that organisations value youth, energy and enthusiasm.”

She notes the problems with moving up the organisational ladder. “People typically move . . . based on output and delivery to the bottom line. But the higher people climb, the more distanced they become from the work they’ve excelled at.”

The problem is that managers who are identified and promoted for doing a great job are then expected to delegate to other people. The result is often that managers rarely possess the skills and expertise to run a team. “They fear letting their bosses know that they’re in over their heads.” The best strategy may be to retain — or develop — a specialism alongside managerial skills.

She observes that a manager left to chance and guesswork might use the “quick and dirty route” to manage and motivate people, through the blunt tool of fear. “The trouble is, however, that nothing demotivates someone faster than fear. As fear takes hold of a team or department, people move from thriving to surviving. The manager is left being the object of loathing. And this leaves the manager in a lonely place where he or she is avoided, disliked and not trusted. That’s a depressing place to be.”

Job satisfaction, notes Prof Wooldridge, is dependent on the relationships with those you manage. “If they are innovative it’s exciting.”

Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, wrote a riposte in the Harvard Business Review to Zappos’ efforts to kill the management role. The consequence, he argues, is “people work harder, and control gets more pervasive once it is exercised by everyone rather than by one boss. Issues have to be sorted out rather than delegated up.”

In research published in 2001, Prof Huy identified middle managers as key to organisational change. They often have good entrepreneurial ideas that they are able and willing to realise — if they can get a hearing. Second, they are far better than most senior executives at leveraging informal networks at companies and can sustain the momentum of the organisation. Finally, they ward off inertia or chaos.

Ultimately this is what happened for Mr Girard, under Mr Tabrizi’s guidance through courses and coaching. He found purpose in the “large challenge” of tackling the slowness of his department’s processing of planning applications. Working rapidly with a sense of “urgency” led to a “personal transformation”. The goal was not, he says, to get a promotion, but ultimately he did.

emma.jacobs@ft.com
Twitter: @emmavj

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