Never a particularly comfortable place to be, shifting goalposts and repeated organisational change has meant there’s never been a more challenging time to be in the middle management arena.
Bridging the gap between the strategic thinkers at the top and the front line workers that deliver at an operational level, middle managers frequently feel frustrated by the seemingly contradictory role they’re required to play.
Despite the tensions which the job of a middle manager can cause, it’s clear that without middle management, effective corporate operation is virtually impossible.
8 Survival tips for middle managers
A key question for many, how to best survive within a mid-level leadership position is a topic that’s worthy of further consideration.
Here we take a look at a number of perspectives that can help managers define their role in a constructive manner, as well as set out suggestions for ways to improve their effectiveness and job satisfaction.
With the right approach and an investment in your professional development, the much-maligned middle management role can become a powerful tool for both personal growth and corporate achievement.
1. Recognise your role as a leader
The one constant in a mid-level role is the fact that it’s a bridging position, providing the “black box” through which strategy and targets defined by upper management are translated into the work needed to meet them.
As a first step, it’s important for managers to be clear that the role is one that has its own, discreet alignment.
A temptation for middle management is to side with the workforce, giving the impression that challenging targets defined by upper management, for example, are unreasonable but “their hands are tied” to do anything other than pass them on.
In a similar vein, it can also be tempting to side with upper management, blaming your team when goals aren’t met.
Neither of these two positions is helpful, as effectively they both involve alienating sections of an organisation that need to be working together.
Instead, middle managers need to use their skills to negotiate reasonable goals for the workforce if possible, at the same time as providing the workforce with the resources needed to deliver on those goals.
2. Carve out your own niche
Contemporary organisational change has meant that the middle management role isn’t what it used to be.
Depending on the type of organisation, some managers will find that they are gradually becoming more autonomous, whilst others will discover their actions are increasingly dictated by corporate priorities and culture.
Similarly, over time, this same role may become more generic, or, conversely become more concentrated on a smaller number of priorities.
When considering a mid-leadership position, it’s worth taking some time to assess how your current parameters and responsibilities suit your requirements for job satisfaction. For some people, the recognition that the role has metamorphosed over time to become less satisfying could be a positive driver for change.
3. Appreciate changes in corporate structure
Back in the day, corporate structure was multi-level and strictly hierarchical. Middle managers frequently “worked their way up” from the shop floor.
Alternatively, managers would join at a relatively junior level, gradually obtaining promotions as the years went on. Career paths were clear cut, and, traditionally, many managers would stay with a company for decades, gradually being promoted upwards in their field of expertise.
Corporate restructuring, changes in working practice and increasing drives to improve productivity, along with societal changes in the workplace, mean that today, management career paths are far less defined.
Organisations now tend to have a flatter management structure, with fewer middle tiers. Rather than working in predetermined silos, it is now more common for managers to be assigned to a temporary project team, which may be assembled to perform a specific piece of work, then dissolved when the work is complete.
Middle managers can therefore frequently find that plotting an upward trajectory is complex, with a series of lateral moves a common career outcome.
4. Determine your goals & objectives
In light of changing corporate structures and the increasing fluidity of the middle leadership role, it’s timely to look at how middle managers can continue to survive and thrive in what is undeniably a challenging corporate environment.
Luckily, professional development opportunities can go a long way towards enabling managers to adopt a pro-active, positive approach to their role, which in turn improves results and, ultimately, boosts their employability.
Creating a personal inventory of strengths, areas for improvement, goals and aspirations can provide a solid basis on which to devise a successful career plan.
The diversity of the middle management role gives plenty of opportunity to use it as a place to practice new skills and hone existing ones.
This enables individuals to achieve considerable personal growth and boost achievement, even if this isn’t recognised through an upwards move.
5. Develop key skills
Transferable skills have never been more important within the middle management role.
To survive successfully in a workplace where you may be assigned to a project you’ve never attempted before, or be tasked with implementing something outside of your current sphere of expertise, transferable skills are absolutely vital.
For mid-level managers, communication skills and the ability to influence are two of the most important skills to acquire. The nature of the role is a brokering one.
No matter what piece of work a middle manager is engaged on, the aim will be the same: to deliver the strategic priorities and targets defined by upper management, at the same time as providing the leadership needed for the workforce to deliver.
To achieve this, arguably the two most important key skills to acquire are the ability to communicate effectively and the ability to influence.
Remember that if you don’t have these key skills, or feel that other parts of your management performance require work, there is plenty of outside tuition and coaching available to help rectify any areas that need work.
Successful management, like any other skill, is one that can be learned. On-going professional training and development is a significant resource for middle managers, providing the tools needed to lead successfully, no matter what challenges you may encounter.
6. Find your specialism
Within any role, there are some facets which an individual performs better than others. Having a number of recognisable strengths, that you can draw on when faced with a fresh project or task, can help to establish you as an expert in a particular field.
In a work environment that’s increasingly insecure, a specialism can be a pathway towards developing a strong position as a key player in the organisation’s successful delivery mechanism.
If you’re not sure what your key strength might be, appropriate coaching could be a powerful tool in enabling you to identify what makes you stand out from the crowd.
7. Pick your organisation wisely
The role and responsibilities of mid-level managers vary considerably depending on the organisation you work for.
Cutbacks in levels of management have broadly seen middle management roles go one of two ways: in one scenario, middle managers are tasked with more senior management roles, as senior managers become fewer and their roles become more specialised; at the other end of the spectrum, middle managers are given very little responsibility, instead required to operate within a tightly controlled corporate culture.
More than ever before, managers who survive are those that pick their employment with care, ensuring a close alignment with the values and culture of their employer in order to optimise their chances of success.
8. Build resilience
Middle management is always going to be a challenging role, despite the amazing array of opportunities that exist within it.
The difference between successful managers and those that go under is often their ability to effectively deal with the pressure and stress that the job demands, which is where developing resilience can really make a difference.
Defined as the ability to bounce back emotionally from set-backs and difficulties, resilience is a mindset that can be learned. Managers that practise resilience are not only able to perform more effectively at work, they’re also more likely to enjoy better mental health and a more balanced lifestyle.
Developing qualities such as compassion, perspective, empathy and response selection, resilience training can be a helpful tool for any manager to make use of.
Whilst many commentators are quick to point out the difficulties that being a mid-level leader can present, the reality is that, if performed correctly, the middle management role can be a rewarding and fulfilling one.
Although it may take some consideration to come up with the best way of fulfilling the role, there are plenty of managers who love what they do, finding it a source of enormous satisfaction.
Appropriate management training, including resilience training and other forms of professional development, can be a powerful tool in helping managers to improve their performance, as well as gain more from their work.
If you want to not only survive middle management but actually thrive in the job, suitable training could be a great place to start.
Your comments and insights are welcome.
Please also check out our full list of managerial courses.
The Aptitude Team