• Leadership

Middle Managers: Heroes or Villains?

RSM's Professor Murat Tarakci examines the changing but still vital role of the middle manager in a new study


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When Meta's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, reportedly justified slashing his firm’s payroll by saying “managers managing managers, managing managers, managing managers, managing the people who are doing the work,” it chimed with the current zeitgeist.

Start-up entrepreneurs are today’s business heroes, and free-spirited workers in the gig economy are much admired. Middle managers, on the other hand, tend to be seen as part of an outdated form of organization, equated with unnecessary bureaucracy and top-down hierarchies. Middle management can be perceived as incompatible with flat, more democratic structures, or with agile management approaches—that reject rigid processes in favour of continuous adaptation to changing developments and customer demands.

This is a misreading of real-world experience. Middle management remains, as Henry Mintzberg suggested, an essential link between the ‘strategic apex’ and ‘operating core’ of organizations. Middle managers convert the broad strategic objectives developed by senior management into operational plans that can be understood and carried out effectively by the frontline workforce. Their role, in complex business environments, is one of interpreting the expectations of the strategic apex and ensuring the work of the operating core is aligned.

Middle management is here to stay, but its roles, processes, and behaviours are changing—keeping in step with the transformative ways contemporary organizations themselves have changed. In a recent research paper Murat Tarakci, Professor of Innovation Strategy at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and colleagues, review the foundations and ongoing advances in middle management research and consider who middle managers are, how they contribute to organizations, and how their roles, processes, and needs are evolving to fit the new realities of the modern workplace.

Middle management has been squeezed by new forms of decentralized autonomous organization, and systems such as agile management, or holacracy—where individuals are not subject to a traditional hierarchy and assume multiple roles. These new flatter organizational structures, bestow authority to individuals, emphasizing personal agency over any hierarchical structure—suggesting the need for middle management is much reduced.

If fact, contrary to the fashionableness of these new approaches and notions of bossless organizations, many companies have recently come to realize that coordination problems can outweigh the benefits of decentralization. Software developer Github—widely lauded as a flat organization—recently found it had to create middle management layers to support its exponential growth. A middle manager's place in the organizational structure provides a unique vantage point from where both strategic direction and operational realities can be appreciated.

While middle managers can be essential changemakers, it is undeniable that middle management layers unless shrewdly controlled can introduce additional bureaucracy that slows decision-making and incurs needless costs. It is also the case that new information technologies have enabled senior managers to communicate organizational strategies directly to employees at lower-levels, tracking implementation using web-based solutions—reducing the need to cascade information through the middle level.

In the UK critics of its health service have often said that the NHS employs too many middle managers. In fact, approximately 3% of staff in NHS hospitals are employed in management roles and this is a much lower level than in the economy overall in England, where the figure is 11%. Given that in recent years the NHS has spent vast sums of money buying in management from management consultancies, due in part to a lack of in-house staff, there is a strong argument to say that more middle managers, albeit ideally with clinician experience, would be a cost-effective way to improve performance and patient outcomes.

Mark Zuckerberg has a point. Employees do not need too many shepherds, but in the NHS, as elsewhere they need enough. Middle managers are vital for ensuring strategy implementation and effecting change and innovation. In today’s volatile, dynamic workplaces middle managers can be under enormous strain. To support them, for the benefit of overall organizational performance, is important that we understand how their roles are evolving and fully appreciate their important contribution. In an increasingly pressurized business world, beset by multiple competing challenges middle managers can be heroes too.


Access the full research paper: ‘Heroes or Villains? Recasting Middle Management Roles, Processes, and Behaviours.’ Tarakci, M., Heyden, M. L. M., Rouleau, L., Raes, A., & Floyd, S. W. (2023). Journal of Management Studies, 60(7), 1663-1683.

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