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Monkey in the middle

I donít think that there is a more under-appreciated job in the workplace than the middle manager. You are too far down the food chain to have any real authority and yet you are perceived by those you supervise as part of the management team. You get to deliver the bad news and whenever there is good news, a senior vice president comes out of the twenty-fifth floor to take the credit.

Brian W. Pascal
You are constantly asked for your views but nobody ever acts on any of your suggestions. You have to fill out so many forms that your fingers ache at the end of the day. None of your employees believe a word you say since every piece of information you provide is overturned by senior management or dissed by the rumour network.

You only planned to be in this position for a couple of years until a more senior position opened up, but that was six years and three vice presidents ago. Itís time to face the music. You are a middle manager, the monkey in the middle. Unless you die, retire, or commit grand larceny, you may stay here forever. What can you do?

It seems that there are two distinct and very different views of the middle manager. One view which is shared by most middle managers is that of superhero or organizational saviour. There is actually research to back up this claim. When researchers at the University of Alberta School of Business looked at who was most important in the change process within the health care sector in Alberta, they found that professionals and managers in the middle of the organization played a pivotal role in implementing sustainable change.

They noted that most literature focuses on the need of senior managers to support initiatives and to get buy-in from front line staff, but the reality was that middle managers did the critical work. They did this by coordinating work, encouraging specific change initiatives, finding appropriate resources, and most importantly by ensuring that staff members understood the changes and how it would affect their work.

The other contrasting view of middle managers which tends to be shared by senior managers and technical staff is that middle managers are only inches above salesmen in their importance to the enterprise. Middle managers are often seen as obstructionists whose only real purpose in their working life is to hamper senior managers from doing their job.

They are accused of being power-hungry and spending most of their time writing memos to those above them asking for more equipment, money and personnel. Those who dislike them also feel that they use bureaucratic jargon to confuse everybody who isnít part of their cabal and by creating rules to cover contingencies and then using them on an everyday basis. The final knock against middle managers is that they are afraid of change.

Which brings us full circle in our discussion of the role and usefulness of middle managers. Research shows that they are the ones who must implement and sustain change, yet senior managers and the technicians donít trust them enough to let them pull the switch. A very interesting but very real dilemma.

Once again we turn to research to provide us with some guidance on this thorny debate. In 1999, Sťrgio Mattos Janczak wrote his PhD thesis in Business Administration at the University of Montreal on the role of middle managers. His findings after studying 59 projects undertaken by 41 middle managers in 35 complex multidivisional organizations in Quebec was that middle managers did well in an organization when they had an expectation that they would benefit from being good managers.

Middle managers who knew that their contributions were valued and of value to the organization bent over backwards to help the organization, including senior managers and technicians achieve their goals.

So if you are a middle manager buried deep in the bowels of the organization, take hope. Science will eventually validate your importance to the organization. Itís only a matter of time.

For all of you senior managers and pointy-headed technicians, it would appear that the more you appreciate your middle manager compadres, the more they will make you and the organization look good.

Just like the filling in a pie, middle managers may yet prove to be the best part. Maybe we should stop treating them like the monkey in the middle.


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