With Martin G. Moore

Episode #296

The Comeback of the Middle Manager: A welcome trend!

I produced a podcast episode over 4 years ago, titled “The Curse of the Middle Manager”. So, when I recently came across an HBR article that signaled a resurgence in middle management roles, I figured it was time to take another look!

In many businesses, the role of the middle manager is by far the toughest. If you’re in that position now, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

You’re effectively the meat in the sandwich — the punching bag for both your team (who often don’t want to change the way they do things), and the senior leaders above you (who sometimes just want you to do as you’re told, without discussion).

Middle managers are often the most unloved (and unrewarded) people in an organization. But here’s the essential lens you need to look through: middle management is the petri dish in which senior leaders are identified, developed, and hatched.

I’m dedicating today’s episode to the middle manager, so that you can not just learn how to survive the cauldron, but to grow, thrive, and move onto bigger and better things!

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Episode #296 The Comeback of the Middle Manager: A welcome trend!


I produced a podcast episode over four years ago, which was titled The Curse of the Middle Manager. So when I recently came across an HBR article that signaled a resurgence in middle management roles, I figured it was time to take another look.

In many businesses, the role of the middle manager is by far the toughest. If you’re in that position now, you’ll know exactly what I mean –  you’re effectively the meat in the sandwich, the punching bag for both your team (who often don’t want to change the way they do things), and the senior leaders above you (who often just want you to do as you’re told without discussion).

Middle managers are often the most unloved and unrewarded people in an organization, but here’s the essential lens you need to look through:

Middle management is the Petri dish in which senior leaders are identified, developed and hatched.

That’s why I’m dedicating today’s newsletter to the middle manager, so that you can learn not just how to survive the cauldron, but to grow, to thrive, and to move on to bigger and better things.

I start by asking the question, “Why are middle managers so unloved?”. I then take a good look at the HBR article, and finish with a recap on what you need to do to be truly successful in a middle management role.


Middle managers can be quite unloved. You’re caught in the twilight zone between being part of the team and part of the company’s senior leadership. You’re not properly welcomed into either camp, but you’re trying to meet the demands of both— and the pressure and tension between these demands can sometimes be incredibly difficult to resolve.

Middle management jobs are often seen as expendable. We’ve seen whole layers of management being taken out during corporate restructures and, trust me, it’s rarely the layers at the top. They’re the ones who get to make the decisions about who goes and who stays.

Middle management also comes under fire from academic trends like the concept of autonomous teams. This one was first identified in the mid-1960s, but it seems to drift in and out of fashion every few years. It’s based on the philosophy that middle managers add little value, and lots of cost.

I’ve never thought there was even the remotest likelihood of achieving superior performance with an autonomous team. And this view isn’t just a symptom of my clear personal bias towards the value of leadership.

I once had a colleague in the tech industry who tested this theory out in the real world by investing significant capital into an R&D lab. He hired a few dozen PhDs, each of whom was at the top of their field.

The theory went that, if you put this much brain power into a room, they would work out what to do to create something extraordinary. Yeah… nah!

The team was disbanded after less than 12 months when nothing of tangible value was produced in that room. As my colleague showed me his deep scars over a long lunch, it turns out it was more like herding cats than watching thoroughbreds gallop through open terrain.

Now perhaps with some direction, and focus, and target setting – in other words, the bread and butter of middle management – that experiment may have turned out slightly differently.

We can see any number of ways that middle managers are unloved. But, how do you deal with it?

Like many things, you have a choice. Your two obvious choices are:

a) You can be a victim, and wallow in the unfairness of it all, or

b) You can just suck it up and get on with it.

Of course, as you might expect, I’m recommending option b)… and I’ll give you two really compelling reasons why you should.

The first is that middle management is the engine room of performance. This is where you are closest to the work, and you can make some real inroads into performance.

The second compelling reason is that everyone who ever made it to senior management first went through the experience of middle management. That’s where they learned their craft. And to borrow an expression from Jocko Willink, “They demonstrated that they were able to handle the suck.”

You need to undergo some pressure testing to show that you can handle life at more senior levels. So, if you’re serious about progressing your career, middle management roles are your dress rehearsal for the big stage.

I hate to say this, but instead of complaining ,and wishing you had a better work-life balance, your path forward is to put your head down and tough it out.


Over four years ago, I produced Ep.74: The Curse of the Middle Manager. As I went back through that script, I realized that I had dedicated that episode to Clay Christensen, who had recently passed away. How quickly four years flies!

His work in innovation was incredible and, in my view, Clay was one of the top five business thought leaders of our generation. He was also a gentleman, and simply a wonderful human being. As a bonus today, I’m going to point you in the direction of Clay’s work. If you ever want to understand innovation and strategy, his books are a must read. The first is The Innovator’s Dilemma, and the second is The Innovator’s Solution.

But, I digress.

In Ep.74, I outlined why middle management roles are so hard. But today I just want to give you a brief update of my views on this topic. Middle management roles don’t have to be hard. Let’s face it, you can be a middle manager and not actually do anything, if that’s what you choose.

Actually, I’m sure you’d do something, but not necessarily anything different, and definitely not anything hard.

I’ve seen heaps of middle managers just trying to survive, so they pander to the wants of their team and try to minimize any conflict, disagreement, and disruption to the status quo. At the same time, they’re trying to manage upwards by communicating in a way that just keeps the boss off their back.

This is a slow but sure road to failure.

If, on the other hand, you’re a diligent leader with professional pride and little ambition, you are going to want to change the way your team operates.

The bad news is that, even if you try to avoid it, you’ll experience turmoil from below: change resistance; not following your directions; questioning and undermining your decisions; and, in the worst cases, reverse bullying.

The pressure from above is equally unavoidable: not backing you when the inevitable failures occur; making irrational demands on your time; unrealistic delivery expectations; expecting you to perform as though there’s complete clarity, when the exact opposite is the case; overriding your decisions if your boss doesn’t agree with them; not giving you sufficient high quality feedback; and, a big one, not providing the air cover you need to successfully do your job.

You can add to this the fact that you’re not making any real money yet.

As a middle manager, you may get a bonus for achieving your KPIs, but this is generally less than 25% of your base salary. Senior managers often have as much as 150% of their base salary as an incentive for hitting their short-term KPIs. And on top of that, many organizations give their senior managers access to long-term incentives. This gives them a share of the overall company profits, over a longer period of time, say three years.

How do you respond to this? Well, you need to perform well enough in the middle management ranks to get invited to participate at the most senior levels.


Given how tough it is out there for middle managers, I was really happy to come across the article I mentioned in the introduction. It was titled The Middle Manager of the Future: More Coaching, Less Commanding. The key takeaway from the article is the surprising trend in the growth of middle management roles.

In fact, the number of managerial jobs has grown steadily over the last 40 years. In 1983, managerial roles in the US accounted for less than 10% of all advertised roles. In 2022 however, this had grown into a share of roughly 13%, and in some industries, middle management roles are experiencing double-digit growth.

This particular finding seems to be reasonably solid, but the article goes on to make a number of points, which of course I was super curious about.

The most troubling conclusion for me is the finding that there’s been an almost complete redefinition of what a middle management role actually is, and this is identified as the primary driver of the growth in middle management positions.

The research that underpins the finding is based on examining the language that’s used in online job advertisements and résumés. Instead of emphasizing supervision, which in the past was considered a primary function of middle management, both job ads and résumés alike seem to now be placing more emphasis on collaboration.

The theory says that the role of middle managers has changed, so instead of being focused on supervising and directing their teams, it’s now about unleashing people’s creativity, motivation, and potential.

Apparently, it’s the middle managers who know how and when to connect to other groups with different skills and capabilities. To further underscore this point, the article cites the correlation between the R&D spend of the hiring companies and the intensity of the language on collaboration.

In my experience, the sorts of skills they’re talking about are developed much later in a person’s career. Influencing and collaboration skills grow in line with the requirement for greater cross boundary interaction… in most middle management roles, this skill is embryonic at best.


Let’s just take stock here for a minute. The fact that the number of middle management jobs seems to be increasing is good news, and it sort of stands to reason… but I’m not sure it’s attributable to a new breed of collaborative middle managers, who are all of a sudden operating totally differently than they have in the past.

Let’s stand back from the problem. I think there could be a number of potential drivers for the apparent growth in demand for middle managers:

  • Perhaps the cost-cutting initiatives of the last few decades have proven that simply removing managers doesn’t necessarily yield better outcomes;

  • Equally, some of the apparent growth could be attributed to the greater availability of information in the public domain that tells us more about hiring practices;

  • It could be due, at least in part, to the evolution of the recruitment industry;

  • It might be the increasing comfort that people have using online job boards;

  • And, let’s face it, it could just be companies reclassifying roles.

Given that the hypothesis is based on the change in language used in job ads, it could be fundamentally linked to the war for talent. Companies are much more attuned to the things that they need to say to attract the best people. It’s not going to sound particularly enticing to tell a potential manager that you want them to “supervise a bunch of borderline malcontents”… but it is going to be attractive to highlight their role in “driving collaboration and unleashing people’s potential”.

The evolving nature of our language is super interesting, right? And it’s changed quite a bit over the last several years. And now that your average, garden-variety leader has been trained in the dark art of virtue signaling, the way they think and talk about their own role is changing.

Surely this is also going to affect the perception that they have of the roles that they’re hiring.

When looking through this lens, it stands to reason that this shift would manifest in role descriptions using different language, even if the role itself hasn’t particularly changed.

Now, stand back and think about it from the perspective of job applicants. The HBR study found that résumés are emphasizing collaboration a lot more as well. When people write their résumés, they want to put their best foot forward – and what that foot looks like is evolving too. People will try to showcase their experience and cast their potential in the best possible light, which is fair enough.

But we are in the age of social media, and we know for a fact that the closer you get to a LinkedIn profile, the further you depart from reality.

Whatever it is, I think it would be dangerous to attribute the growth that’s being experienced in middle management roles to a single cause. And it also begs the question, “Is the role of the middle manager really changing?


As a middle manager, your objective is relatively simple:

To execute on management intent – to create the most value you possibly can from the resources you’ve been given (people, money, assets, and even time).

How to do this can be much more complex. For a start, you’ll be trying to balance the demands of management and leadership. I did a recent episode that might really help you understand this nexus a bit better. Ep.267: Management vs. Leadership.

I developed my No Bullsh!t Leadership framework with one purpose in mind: to give you the tools, strategies, and techniques to build your leadership capability and confidence, so that you can lead teams to achieve optimum performance… to capture the upside potential that most leaders are never able to tap into.

Although it’s applicable to everyone from first-time leaders through to seasoned CEOs, the sweet spot for the framework is absolutely middle management. Why? Because that’s when you have the best chance of doing the most with it.

As a middle manager, you’ve usually been leading for long enough to realize that it’s a lot harder than it looks, but not for so long that you’ve seen some success, and started to believe your own bullsh!t.

Of course, there are no silver bullets, right? Just predictable pathways to better leadership, which you can implement with consistent practice… and discipline… and repetition.

What are the core deliverables of the modern middle manager? I’m going to focus just briefly on four key things that haven’t changed, and are unlikely to change anytime soon:

  1. Understanding the strategic intent and direction of the organization and building a work program that delivers that from your team. This means you have to know the value drivers intimately, and go after them relentlessly.

  2. Making decisions that are commensurate with your accountabilities. Decision-making in the heat of battle is a core skill, so you need to learn to make good decisions quickly. This requires a whole lot of leadership acumen: putting respect before popularity; being able to handle conflict in all its forms; building a culture of robust challenge and debate; understanding risk; and constantly assessing the ambiguity and complexity of the decision context.

  3. Executing the program of work as efficiently as possible. This means maximizing single point accountability, empowering your people to unlock their ingenuity and potential. This is where you’ll really learn about the relationship between collaboration and results, and you’ll see in full living color why collaboration should always be subordinate to accountability for outcomes. If you still have any doubts about this one, listen to Ep.53: Don’t Overdo Collaboration.

  4. Building capability in your team: to constantly reduce key person risk; to improve your bench strength; and to build a resilient team that performs under pressure. You need to develop and fill your leadership pipeline.

If you can manage to do these things, it’s going to pave the way for you to be promoted into the big jobs.


Getting the basics right at middle management level is a critical stepping stone to more senior roles. There’s no doubt that you can win a promotion by some other means, but if you do, the fundamentals you need to thrive at that next level may be lacking.

The people above you are always looking for signs: who is the most likely to be ready to handle the challenge of the next level up? They’ll be looking for things like:

  • Your ability to align organizational objectives;

  • A thirst for knowledge, and the motivation to apply it;

  • The willingness to tackle tougher and tougher challenges;

  • Regular and frequent efforts to innovate;

  • The ability to anticipate and avoid obstacles;

  • Demonstrated judgment in taking calculated risks;

  • The capacity to learn from your mistakes… and not repeat them;

  • The ability to articulate complex problems in simple terms;

  • And, yes, even your skill and ability to collaborate…

Apparently, that’s all the rage!



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