3 Keys to Acing Middle Management

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Middle management — the term for managers who have bosses above them and direct reports below them — is often a running joke in the modern office. We have memes, TV shows and plenty of Dilbert cartoons to relate the woes of the person stuck in the middle. 

This position, common in almost any organization of more than a couple dozen people, has its unique challenges. Oftentimes, while it's considered a management position, it doesn't come with much authority of its own. As a middle manager, you have to follow the guidance of your boss, and at the same time, motivate and lead your own employees to accomplish tasks and projects you usually don't formulate yourself. It can be stressful, and at times, feel unrewarding. However, for most, it's an important stepping stone on the way up the career ladder.

With that in mind, here are three best pieces of advice for middle management:

1. Cultivate patience.

When you're stuck in the middle, it's easy to get frustrated. You have the concerns of your direct reports as well as your boss's wants and needs to attend to. With the pressure coming from above and below, you may feel squeezed by so many competing priorities.  That feeling can make you quick to the trigger, both in trying to fix things as well as in reacting to any new guidance or tasks that come down from management. The best thing for you to do is to try to cultivate patience.
This skill in slowing down will not only build your credibility as a leader (no one likes working for an impatient, reactive person) but will also help you from having to change directions so often. One thing that I learned in my first year of middle management was to build in a pause from when I was told to do something with my team, to when I actually passed on the message — even if my boss was chomping at the bit.
For one, taking a moment to make a solid plan for accomplishing whatever assigned task (as well as deciding on how to communicate it) rather than jumping right to it is was necessary strategic thinking, but also, building in a pause helped catch any changes of minds. I found that my boss would change the task or guidance a day later, or even after a few hours; that meant if I told my employees what to do immediately, I'd have to backtrack and change again, which led to them not trusting management and feeling a little bit jerked around. As a middle manager, you're always going to feel pulled in two directions, but you need to be the most flexible link in the chain for the relationship to truly succeed. 

2. Communicate early and often.

While this piece of advice seems counter to my last point about waiting to communicate, it's not. You need open communication with your subordinates and with your boss to keep everything running smoothly. As a baseline foundation, your direct reports should know their roles and responsibilities, and you should know yours as well as your boss's. If you don't, that's something to get out on the table ASAP. 
A common complaint among middle managers is feeling micromanaged by their bosses. After giving you and your team a task to accomplish, you find your boss checking in constantly to see your status, telling you the best way to do it or even stepping in at parts to take over. If this seems familiar to you, you'll need to overcommunicate until your boss trusts you have a handle on the situation. You can try to mitigate their meddling by making them feel secure; send daily updates on the status of the project; start each day letting them know what you and the team plan to accomplish. In many cases, this will help your boss to realize you have a handle on it, and they may back off. If you do the opposite, and clam up because you feel like your toes are being stepped on...see point No. 3.

3. Lose the ego.

It's a delicate dance to not only please your supervisor, but also the people below you — all while hitting your goals. 
If you're not humble and take credit for your subordinate's contribution, your team will find out, and regardless, you want to be the type of leader who lifts people up and gives credit where credit is due.
The same thing goes for blame; if you don't cover for your people's mistakes (because remember, in your boss's eyes, their mistakes reflect your management), your team will eventually find out, and, your boss will see you as someone who passes responsibility.
And finally, in regards to relations with your boss, even if you think they're a total micromanager, fighting with them over how a goal can be accomplished (my way or their way) won't win you any battles. Like it or not, middle management comes with a hefty set of office politics. The best way to handle the situation is to help your team be the best they can be, while accomplishing what your boss wants without too much friction. 

What is an example of a middle manager?

Let's take a look at a few different industries and job titles. When I worked at Dunkin Donuts in my teens, the shift manager was a middle manager. She reported to the actual store manager, who reported to the owner; technically, both my shift leader was a middle manager as well as the store manager because they had direct reports below them and a boss above them. 
In the military, I was a middle manager as a platoon leader; my direct report was my platoon sergeant and I was my company commander's direct report. It sounds circular, but whenever you have a manager who reports to another manager, that's a middle management situation. 

How do you manage a middle manager?

  • It's not anything too surprising: give them space to manage their employees using their own style and resist the urge to have things done your exact way (in other words, don't micromanage!).
  • Communicate your goals and the company's overall goals and timelines so your manager knows what they need to do to lead their team in achieving the company's objectives.
  • Give feedback often; while it's not always comfortable, letting your subordinate know what they're doing well and what they could be doing better, with honesty and kindness on a regular basis will help prevent any surprises come annual review time. 

Is middle management necessary?

While many organizations — especially startups — try alternate management structures like flat organizations, working groups or independent teams, for the most part, if a company is above a certain number of employees, middle managers are necessary because communication breaks down when a group surpasses about 30 members. Think about all the time that goes into managing just one person; the training, the day-to-day task management and communication and the HR related issues like time off or interpersonal problems to name a few; when you multiply that by every employee, you can see the time required just for one person is a hefty burden. 
Of course, if you're running your own company and decide you want to manage everyone, rather than have anyone in between you and the staff, that's up to you; but, for the most part, you won't find many large organizations that work in that manner. 

What are the three levels of management?

1. Executive level/top level: This is the C-suite, such as CEO, COO, CFO, etc. 
2. Senior management/director level. 
3. Middle management.

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