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  • What are the primary roles of middle managers?
  • Why are middle managers important?

Many of us who serve in leadership roles in organizations are somewhere in the middle. We might serve at any of the following levels: cabinet, executive, operational, or supervisory. Anything in between the CEO/President of the organization and front-line employees is middle management. Middle managers focus on connecting with employees to increase engagement and enhance productivity by translating top management’s ideas into operational plans that produce functional and/or tangible outputs. To do this effectively they use many skills that help them set expectations, provide feedback, resolve conflict, and motivate employees to improve their performance.

I’ll highlight three attributes that I believe middle managers should have: self-awareness, communication, and adaptability. Self-awareness is the first item that comes to mind. Everyone should be self-aware, but it is essential for middle managers because they are pulled in many different directions. Top management has one set of demands, subordinates have another, and they are caught between collaborating and/or competing with peers for that next promotion.

The next is communication. I can’t say it enough; the most important communication skill is listening. Top management and subordinates speak different languages because they view the organization from different vantage points. Middle managers have to convey information to upper management and subordinates in the language each understands. Adaptability is another attribute middle managers must have because things can change so quickly. A CEO could change an organization’s strategic direction. A storm on a faraway land could affect the supply of raw materials or employees could go on strike. Middle managers must stand in the gap and figure out how to pivot.

I mention three important attributes above, but there are so many more. Despite all the functions middle managers perform they are not always held in high esteem. In fact, I have heard a few jokes about middle managers. Here’s one.

A large corporation hires a Tribe of cannibals. They tell them: “You have full rights as employees, but you’re not allowed to eat anybody.” Things go well for several weeks and then the CEO calls the Tribe into his office. The CEO says: “Somebody has been reported missing. Did you eat them?” The chief of the Tribe checks with his people and says: “No sir, we have not eaten anybody. It must be a coincidence.” The CEO is skeptical, but he has no evidence, so he dismisses the Tribe. Once they are away from the other employees, the chief turns to his Tribe and asks: “Okay, which one of you idiots did it? A tribesman sheepishly puts up his hands and admits: “I ate a secretary.” The chief smacks the tribesman and yells: “You fool! We’ve been eating middle management for weeks and nobody has noticed. Then you had to go and eat someone that does actual work!” That joke is funny to me.

But seriously, a good middle manager is like that housekeeper a couple thought about terminating. They questioned what she did all day. A few weeks later they came home from work and found the house a mess. She said you questioned what I do all day. Well, today I didn’t do it.

 How can middle managers support each other?