Being a middle manager is kind of like being in the middle seat on an airplane. It’s uncomfortable in both directions. We’ve got to take strategy from above and communicate it into tasks for front-line workers. Then we need to provide advice to the workers about how that’s going, and also give feedback to our supervisors.
Middle managers have become the glue that binds the book of purpose and execution at an organization. Researchers found that middle managers are responsible for an organization to make financial gains in a Harvard study of 429 publicly traded companies and 450,000 employee responses. But the role of the middle manager is changing as we shift to teams that work remotely with digital options for reporting.
Middle managers have been human traffic controllers for decades: moving information across teams, tracking project status, and serving as go-betweens among senior leaders and lower employees. As companies move to more dispersed workforces, the conventional function of a middle manager is growing more irrelevant. Future middle managers will use digital tools made for tracking hybrid teams while centering their efforts on team building and talent development.
This will lead businesses to reexamine established career paths. Organizations will begin to offer growth paths that empower individuals to develop their technical skills without inevitably taking managing people. Supervisors will have more opportunities to focus on uniting the people that are the backbone of every business.
What has changed?
The middle manager’s role in monitoring productivity is becoming more redundant because of three reasons:
- The physical office is being replaced by a digital foundation. It is easier to automate the documentation and sharing of key information when communication is on a digital channel. This increases transparency. But it also eliminates the information sharing that is typical of middle management.
- A digital workforce makes measuring output easier but making a shared mission harder. Digital tools simplify the process of measuring output. But with a workforce that doesn’t physically meet, building and keeping ties around a single mission is harder than ever. Managers must become experts in clear communications and rallying teams.
- The 9–5 work pattern is becoming out-of-date. When we were all working from the office, the middle manager could walk around the office to check in with employees. But we now have a flexible work environment where people may not all work at the same time. So managers must now intentionally design workflows that don’t depend on physically being in the same space at the same time.
From traffic control to leaders
Rather than remaining as traffic controllers, managers should use digital tools to track their direct reports’ workloads. This shift asks leaders to release their grip on information flow. Knowledge should be democratized. The default setting for company information should be open to everyone. As a manager in the future, you must be comfortable with more day-to-day accountability from their workers, but in return, your direct reports will be empowered with the context that they need to make quicker and better decisions.
Management isn’t the only way to grow
For most organizations, becoming a manager is the only way for someone to advance. But that creates a lot of middle managers who don’t want to lead people. It also devotes limited recourse to a large group of workers that want to advance their careers, without regard for whether they are interested in becoming the type of supervisor the company needs. Companies will need to reassess who becomes a manager in this new digital-first environment.
Slack has created two equally valuable ways to advance: an expert path and a team development path. As an expert, employees can be promoted to a vice president based only on their technical mastery. They do not need to develop the team, report, or manage people. Employees on the team development track show technical expertise, but also possess competency and an interest in managing. That includes removing obstacles, aligning resources, creating clarity in the mission of the team, and coaching individuals.
As the routing of work becomes digital, middle managers need to be empowered to focus on developing talent, creating connections, and building inclusion among employees. Companies must also build career ladders that allow experts to grow in title and compensation based on expertise and results, without compelling them to become managers. Many people are ambitious, but not particularly interested in managing people. Providing these employees with a compelling development track will be essential both for their own growth and job satisfaction, and to ensure that those who do become middle managers want to do the work involved.
When managers spend most of their time coaching and leading, the company sees substantial returns. The middle manager of the future should possess technical competency while also defining what good looks like. That manager should shape the career development and learning journeys of their team.