Middle management: is it even possible to enjoy it?


There are too many horror stories of middle managers to count (but we'd still like to hear yours). Their leaders, their directs, even they agree that the work is getting harder as organizations get more dysfunctional

So is it even possible to build organizations where middle managers are beloved and love their jobs? 

More isn't always better.

Companies have known middle management is struggling for a long time.  A paper published all the way back in 1979 in the Management International Review found that middle managers had more stress and lower satisfaction than more senior leaders. So why haven't we fixed this problem yet? 

While there are many reasons, once common issue is companies often replace systems thinking with symptoms thinking.

For example, seeing that managers feel overworked and stressed, companies hired more of them, presumably to spread the work. In 1983, there were 8.5 employees per manager in the US, but today, there are 4.5.

But this, of course, didn't work. Why? Induced demand.

In the 2000s, Houston's Katy Freeway had a major traffic problem. The six-lane highway was clearly not enough for Houston's growing suburbs. So Houston started a 3 billion dollar project to add lanes, in some places, as many as seven additional lanes. Yet traffic only got worse.  Economists call this problem induced demand, where more supply creates more demand. With added lanes, households who previously used other alternatives now used the highway until traffic was back to where it was.

As with adding lanes, adding middle managers created more work (i.e., demand).  To survive the thunderdome of annual ratings, each middle manager needs to have their own priorities. But those priorities often require coordination from other middle managers, causing meeting and coordination costs to grow non-linearly.

The strategy to reduce work actually increased work. But perhaps worse still, this wasn't even the most powerful lever to help middle managers enjoy their work.

In our research on performance motivation, we routinely measure people's total motivation (i.e., tomo), and how it differs based on aspects of their work. Here are two different attributes of a person's job:

  1. Having a good work-life balance
  2. Having the ability to solve important problems at work

Which do you think had the higher impact on performance motivation?

If you're a reader of our newsletter or Primed to Perform, I hope the findings aren't a surprise. Having the ability to solve important problems was a far greater performance motivator than having a good work-life balance (although both together is clearly the best). 

What all this research says is that if we are to help middle managers thrive, we must shift from symptoms thinking to systems thinking.

The five steps to creating high-performing middle management

Step 1 - Clarify what they own

Many middle managers are unclear on what they own. But perhaps worse still, many others feel like their job is to enforce a command-and-control regime. Neither is great for optimizing performance.

Organizations must come to realize that there are two types of performance, not one—tactical and adaptive performance.

  • Tactical performance is about convergence. Top-down goals, processes, policies, and procedures are all tools of tactical performance. An organization that is high on tactical performance but low on adaptive tends to act like a large cargo vessel. It is capable of creating a lot of momentum, but is slow to pivot when necessary.
  • Adaptive performance is about divergence. It is the definitional opposite of tactical performance. Bottoms-up problem solving, invention, and undirected iteration are all tools of adaptive performance. An organization with too much adaptive performance and not enough tactical tends to resemble a misaligned collection of boats. All are solving their own problems, but without proper alignment, they point in random directions, get in each others' way, and constantly reinvent the wheel.

The aim is to build an organization that is high on both tactical and adaptive performance, and this is where the middle managers come in.

Many mistakenly say that middle managers should cascade goals down the organization.  This isn't quite right.

Rather than cascading goals from the ivory tower, middle managers are responsible for a process of integration, where top-down goals are integrated with bottoms-up problem solving. Think about middle managers like an estuary where the pristine freshwater from rivers is integrated with the messy reality of ocean water. 

One major technology company we've partnered with in their own operating model transformation has asked us to create that clarity. This organization is large enough to have on average 5 layers below the c-suite, so each layer needs to understand their role in this process of integration.

When constructed well, as in the example above, every layer has a unique, interesting, and critical role to play in this process of integration.

To get started on this step:

  1. Make sure your whole org understands the two types of performance and what is needed to get the best of both. The book Primed to Perform can be an excellent resource for this step. 
  2. Create clear role definitions for each layer that takes into account their role in the integration of goals and problems to solve. Reach out to Neel or Lindsay if you could use some help with this step.
  3. Ensure that your evaluation processes reinforce the definitions for each role.

Step 2 - Eliminate the bureaucracy

There's so much written about the pain of bureaucracies that you'd think a bureaucracy was responsible for writing them. And no executive wants a bureaucracy in their organization. So what's going on here? 

We'll flesh out the concept of bureaucracies in another article, but for now, one of the most problematic root causes of bureaucratic organizations is the meeting culture.

  • Meeting cultures cause slow feedback loops. Slow feedback loops create waste and frustration. This is why we strongly advocate for ending meeting cultures.
  • Meeting cultures consume so much time that middle managers and executives don't have the time to think about the complex problems they have to solve. Moreover, this much meeting time prevents executives from learning new management techniques, causing them to continue relying on meetings.  Companies are literally in too many meetings to learn how to not be in too many meetings.
  • An invisible cost of meeting cultures: they encourage stall tactics. When executives don't have the time for deep thinking, when asked for consensus in a meeting, many leaders ask stall questions. Can you analyze this, or can you follow up on that? These stall questions create more work, some of which isn't important to the problem being solved.

These meeting-centric bureaucracies make the job of middle managers much harder. 

To get started in this step:

  1. Have your organization read more about ending meeting cultures.
  2. Lead a discussion with your executives on whether they are willing to change their own behaviors to drive performance velocity.

Step 3 - Continue their apprenticeship

The Peter Principle is the observation that when a leader learns how to do their job, they get promoted to a new job where they are no longer effective. Therefore, all leaders in companies are bad at their jobs. To avoid the Peter Principle, it is important that organizations develop the skills of their middle managers. 

I once worked in an incredible apprenticeship culture. Yet even in that company, the apprenticeship focused on technical skills, like building financial models. When it came to the skills needed to be a high-performing middle manager, the model became Darwinian—survival of the fittest. If you just happened to intuit the skills needed (or get lucky by hitching your wagon to cash cows), you survived.

For most organizations, a Darwinian model results in toxic cultures and is simply impractical. Instead, it is important to clarify the skills needed to perform in middle management roles.  

For example, using the skills catalog in the Factor platform, you can see each of these roles has a unique and interesting set of skills to master. Take a look at your level and the two levels on either side—wouldn't you want to learn these skills?

To get started in this step:

  1. Develop an understanding of the right skills for each level. The Factor platform can be a helpful way to do this.
  2. Implement an explicit process of apprenticeship, where an organization can create accountability for skill growth. Factor's Skills Checks are an easy, turnkey way to execute this step.

Step 4 - Make people leadership easier

People leadership is exceedingly difficult when your aim is to maximize performance. This problem is covered deeply in the worldwide bestseller Primed to Perform. One of the major challenges is the Dunning-Kruger Effect which demonstrates that people tend to overestimate their abilities. For example, in one of our research projects, we asked people how their leaders perceive their performance. Here's the distribution of answers we got:

Yes, 50% of respondents thought they were in the top 10% of employees. Given that's how I would have answered this question also, I have a lot of reflecting to do. 

Because of this, a leader's ability to drive performance is incredibly difficult. Organizations should put in the processes to make this much easier.  When we build high-performing organizations, there are three critical processes we recommend org-wide:

  1. Process 1: Health Checks where every team measures and manages their own motivation every quarter. This helps middle managers by making it everyone's responsibility to build a motivating, high-performing culture. Learn more about Health Checks. 
  2. Process 2: Skill Checks. As mentioned above, structured, skill-based apprenticeship will not only help with the development of middle managers, but will also help middle managers grow performance below them. Learn more about quarterly Skill Checks.
  3. Process 3: Strategy and prioritization. Organizations need to make it as easy as possible for middle managers to construct the priorities of their organizations while integrating the top-down goals, side-to-side projects, and bottoms-up problems of their teams. This is not easy at all, and structure will help. This is why a Strategy Board approach to strategic planning is critical. Learn more about Strategy Boards.

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA!

The middle management problem isn't new. The term itself can be traced back to a 1941 book called Middle Management written by Mary-Cushing Niles who in her remarkable career worked for the White House and the government of India.  

In her book, she writes:

...these administrators carry a heavy load of work and responsibility. They are subject to pressure from above by their chiefs in the top management with whose ideas, policies, and attitudes they must work; from below by the supervisors who press for counsel, decisions, and changes; and sideways by colleagues whose departments or functions are interrelated in greater or lesser degree with their own."

In the intervening 83 years, this description is still shockingly accurate, yet society doesn't seem to have mastered the concept. One recent study found:

  • 70% of middle managers would love being individual contributors again
  • 79% of middle managers say they are at risk of burnout

Another study found middle managers are 46% less satisfied with their jobs than senior executives are. 

Nevertheless, companies still struggle. 

Rather than blaming middle managers, or treating symptoms, it is time to take a systems thinking approach and solve the problem of middle management once and for all.

Have a question or story about middle management? Don't hesitate to reach out.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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