The workplace can be stressful for middle managers when they try to balance the wants and needs of their staff with their organisation's policies, especially when top leaders are not in sync.
This disconnect has been more apparent in the post-pandemic workplace, where workers are turning to their line managers for new ways to navigate their jobs, vying for better pay, and asking for flexible roles that better suit their lifestyles and support their career goals.
But if upper-level managers don't allow middle managers to deliver desired outcomes, they are left with a team of dissatisfied employees.
"This is one example of how direct managers get stuck in the middle, which is the worst place to be, because their role is to keep employees and top leaders in alignment and produce a working model that meets everyone's expectations," said Gary Cox, ACMA, CGMA, who is based in the UK and a coach for businesses and individuals.
Middle managers need to delegate better and, rather than taking over, coach their teams to deliver. In parallel, they need to demonstrate with confidence to top management that they have everything covered to stop it from getting involved in the details. This will lead to more empowered teams, better engagement, and more manageable workloads, said Jude Jennison, a leadership coach, author, and owner of Leaders by Nature based in Staffordshire in the UK.
"Middle managers want to support their employees, but they often try to rescue them instead," she said. "At the same time, those managers are trying to perform for their own bosses and want to be seen as doing the right thing, so they are literally squeezed in the middle."
From building in flexibility for employees, to empowering teams to solve their own problems and maintaining direct channels of communication with higher-ups, middle managers must find ways to step into leadership. Here are four ways they can do that.
Align goals. Jennison's advice for middle management is to reflect on the organisation's overall goals and work on aligning employees and top managers so everyone is moving in the same direction for the good of the company.
"To accomplish this, managers need more flexibility from their bosses, effective communication, and empowerment," she said.
Cox defined the role of middle managers as educators and coaches.
"To be an effective middle manager, take the extra step to learn the real challenges [that] both employees and top bosses are facing and help them come together on solutions," he said. "Educate them on what you are trying to accomplish and how they can help you accomplish it."
Focus on flexibility. Today's career marketplace offers myriad opportunities for employees to pursue new careers that meet their needs. Middle managers must have the flexibility to negotiate and resolve employee demands without having to consult with upper management, said Julia Lamm, a workforce strategy partner at PwC in New York City.
"Employees are looking at what other organisations are offering and talking with colleagues and peers about their working conditions, their salaries, and their benefits," she said. "And they are building a case for what they want for themselves."
Upper-tiered leaders can empower managers to offer perks and benefits in addition to, or in lieu of, changing employees' working conditions or raising their salaries. Among value-added workplace perks are professional development opportunities, growth within the organisation, and mentoring. Improving working conditions by providing flexibility so employees can manage their workloads on their own terms, tend to their family's needs, and manage their own schedules are among concessions that can lead to a satisfied team.
Advocate for employees. Corporate executives often distance themselves from the operational level of their organisations, and they don't understand the important contributions individuals make on a daily basis, Cox said. As a result, employee aspirations may be lost on them. Middle managers can fill this gap.
"When middle managers educate company leaders on the important roles their employees play and the contributions they make to corporate success, their advocacy for better working conditions often leads to good results," Cox said. "Managers should be prepared to demonstrate how flexibility to meet employee needs leads to prosperity for the company."
Provide transparent communication. Sometimes middle management is called the "frozen middle", and this can occur when initiatives sent down from the top collide with feedback from the operational level and stall, Lamm said. While this is a tricky place for middle managers, they can take control by maintaining a high level of transparency with both employees and upper management. It starts with communication.
Clear communication with employee teams and with upper management helps middle managers walk the line in between and keep everyone happy.
"If there's a problem on the team and the leader only hears about it when it has escalated or when a milestone is about to be missed, that may cause problems," Lamm said. "Be transparent about your concerns and specific about the corrective actions you intend to take."
At the same time, managers must be transparent with their employees by sharing upper management's concerns and helping them connect their work to the broader corporate strategy, vision, and mission.
"It helps when organisations connect their corporate objectives to their employees," Lamm said. "Middle managers need to think about ways to bring those objectives to life for them."
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.