Monday, June 1, 2009

Eulogy: The Demise of Middle Managers

Extremely productive individuals are dying off in epidemic numbers and soon they will be extinct. Unfortunately, they aren’t dying of old age, but are being killed off figuratively by a number of contributing factors introduced in recent years to the business environment.

These individuals, known as middle managers, perform very important functions. They possess a vast working practical knowledge of the industry or service area in which they work. They came up through the ranks and had a keen understanding of what that means. They also act as an all-important buffer between workers and upper management, as well as insuring that the needs of customers are met. In part their success is attributed to their long-range view of things and an understanding that maximizing short-term profits isn’t the ultimate goal and that cost-cutting, a double-edge sword, must be handled with great delicacy.

So what is making these middle managers extinct? Here are just some of the tendencies of modern businesses contributing to their demise:
· There is little or no coming up through the ranks nor serving in the ranks by upper management to gain an insider’s understanding;
· Throwing up a lot quickly indiscriminately and seeing what sticks;
· A blind follow-the-industry-leader attitude;
· Big-picture closed-door planning becoming more important than and overshadowing execution and worker feedback;
· Upper management no longer knows the industry or service area that it is “managing;”
· A technology mentality is encouraging first-in-time marketplace pushes at the cost of quality;
· Bearers of bad news are punished;
· Little respect for existing products;
· No real supervision downward;
· Expertise expected instantly;
· Misplaced accountability at lowest levels;
· Responsibility scrupulously avoided at upper levels;
· Brain drain not feared;
· Making something look right overriding doing something right;
· High turnover accepted and encouraged;
· No apologies offered;
· Short-term view;
· Exit strategy in the forefront;
· Placating upper management has become a fine art form;
· Lower-level managers are working managers;
· A belief that technology can replace workers; and
· A lack of respect for the consumer.

This eulogy isn’t meant to lament the demise of middle managers, but to explain it and to celebrate all that the many middle managers accomplished. It is also to point to the legacy that was left behind and to encourage the generations that remain to build on that legacy so upper management and workers create a business world that would jointly assume the vacated roles that middle managers performed.


  1. Howard,

    I liked your list and I agree that middle-managers are a dying breed. There are a couple of other causes I have seen.

    * Automation and collaboration tools - the communications, interpretation and calculations that used to be done by middle managers is now done by computers.

    * Cost cutting - It makes little sense to cut the people who do the boots on the ground work and the people who report to the board are pretty safe, so that leaves middle management as the people to be cut.

    * Shift to smaller organizations - From the late 1940 on there was a push to achieve economies of scale. Bigger was seen as better and companies, conglomerates and organizations grew. Since the recession in the '80s, there has been a shift to entrepreneurship and smaller more focused businesses. These businesses have less need for middle management.

    * Workflow and productivity improvements. Between technology, workflow process improvement, training, outsourcing and business specialization the productivity of individual workers has increased dramatically. This means you need fewer workers and therefore fewer middlemanagers.

    * Education - University degrees in the '40s were very rare. As the percentage of the population have college degrees has increased, the necessity to "supervise" i.e. train, monitor etc. has decreased.

    * Shift in the type of work. Along with eduction there has been a shift away from factories, with their layers of management; toward knowledge work. Knowledge workers have very different management and therefore middle management requirements.

    These are my beliefs and none of them are supported by studies, research or statistics, nonetheless, I believe they are correct.

    Thanks for a great post and I look forward to seeing more,


  2. Andrew,
    Great points that act as further confirmation; Would like to see more discussion on the ramifications and on the utilization of these avaiable middle managers.