I am writing this article about the results of a study1 in which 63% of managers state that they do not want to continue in the position and 37% believe that their level of management will disappear in the next five years. And, even more astonishing, only 9% of non-managers aspire to be a manager.
In this article I invite you to answer the question: is the role of middle manager doomed to extinction?
Let’s see successively:
- What is the middle manager (hereinafter “IM”), and what is his/her role in organisations?
- What threats are hanging over their heads?
- What are the future alternatives for IMs?
We will use, interchangeably, the categories “manager/manager”, “middle manager”, “middle management”, “middle management”.
- What is the middle manager and what is his/her role in the organisations?
In my opinion, we are dealing with a middle manager when
- in organisations, and whatever their nature (i.e., public, private),
- which have some dimension (i.e. in small start-ups there are no IMs),
- and that, as a consequence of that dimension, complexity occurs in the organisation of work (e.g. with the emergence of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, in England, the “craft” mode of organisation was replaced by the “industrial” mode of organisation),
- and from which [complexity] results the need for division and specialisation of labour,
- These require greater and more efficient coordination (i.e. the function of arranging, according to a certain order, and with a view to achieving, progressively and over time, better results),
- of the means of production (i.e. human capital, technological capital),
- and when such coordination is no longer humanly possible to be done, through direct supervision, by the owner of the business (i.e. the “master craftsman” can no longer walk on the “workshop floor” and, in direct contact, can no longer personally guide all his “apprentices”),
- the one who best knows “the way we do things around here” is chosen from among the best “apprentices of the trade”,
- and who will be responsible for ensuring that the teams achieve results.
- In this context, key tasks of the IM are: defining clear objectives; taking decisions; motivating and helping “craftsmen” to develop their skills; providing feedback; eliminating obstacles and ensuring the connection between the business owner and the workforce.
…only then, and in my opinion, will the middle manager have been born.
- What threats hang over the heads of middle managers?
Writing, like a time machine, allows us to move quickly from the birth certificate to the death certificate of the IMs.
More statistics2 show us the real hell that the daily routine of the IM in organisations has become, caught and trapped in the middle – the so-called sandwich function – in which, from above, he receives the innumerable pressures from the “owners of the business” to obtain bigger and better results; and, from below, the pressures, complaints and laments of the “artisans” for better working conditions and a fairer distribution of wealth:
- Seven is the average number of approvals that GOIs need to make each decision;
- 40% is the percentage of time that IMs spend preparing reports;
- 30% to 60% is the percentage of time IMs spend in meetings with other IMs;
- 40% to 80% is the percentage of time that IMs consider is being spent on activities that do not generate any value.
In short, the threats result from the perfect and fatal storm between globalisation, the digital revolution (i.e. Artificial Intelligence, big data, robots & cobots3 ), the COVID19 pandemic and demographics – Y and Z generations – which, in combination, have created enormous complexity in organisations.
Organisations, in response to complexity, have switched on “the maximum level of complication – the complicometer” – creating the ideal conditions for what has been called “monster-Frankenstein organisations “4 : i.e. organisational arrangements on top of arrangements, a patchwork of poorly designed processes, ill-adapted technologies, an under-skilled workforce.
Key tasks of the IM are: setting clear objectives; making decisions; motivating and helping “craftsmen” to develop their skills; providing feedback; removing obstacles and ensuring the link between the business owner and the workforce
Between increasing complexity and increasing complicometer – e.g. between 1955 and 2010, while the level of complexity in organisations increased by x6, the level of complication grew by x355 – , the combination of these factors has been making the following core IMG activities redundant:
i) The reduction of direct contact with the “owner of the business” (fruit of globalisation, somewhere sitting on the other side of the world) and, as well, the reduction of direct contact with the “craftsmen” (obliged by the pandemic to work remotely): it is the announced death of the “sandwich” function of linking the top to the bottom of the organisation.
ii) Without a physical stage, now replaced by the digital infrastructure, the IM sees the disappearance of what is considered one of their sources of power and relational capital, a major signature of their function, which is to be the glue of the organisation, and the “masters of the trade”: it is the announced death of the “management walking around the factory6”.
iii) And the potentially fatal blow for the IM is a gift of demography: the entry of the Y and Z generations, these ones more oriented towards the search for purpose than towards salary and task, digital natives who take care of the measurement of their performance using algorithms and applications for managing work efficiency, which is now done in semi- or fully autonomous teams, organised in double dependency matrices: it is the announced death of the IM’s role of “command and control”.
(What future alternatives for middle managers?)
- The IM, as we have known it since the industrial revolution, essentially configured as an instrument for the resolution of complexity, indirect coordination and liaison between the owner of the business and the “craftsmen” is, as the statistics show us, an endangered species: only 9% of non-managers aspire to be managers.
- Today, however, to the complexity of business, and as a reaction, organisations have turned on the complicometer (i.e. become bureaucratic) making the role of the middle manager even more necessary.
- But today a middle manager is sought with a diverse configuration: no longer a ‘command and control’ instrument, but an operational leader (i.e. Agility), who is inspired by the digital readiness of the Y and Z generations (i.e. Juniorisation); who brings his broad experience and knowledge to 360° of the organisation (i. e. Lateralisation); that with greater focus on the concerns of the ‘artisans’ (i.e. People Orientation) ensures, at all times, that the voice of the customers (i.e. Customer Orientation) is present, to ensure that the building blocks that are modern organisations hold together.
- But fundamentally, IMs are the anteroom of the future, the test bed and test bed of the agile leaders of tomorrow’s organisations.
1BEAUCHENE, Vinciane et all “The end of management as we know it”, May 2020.
2 BEAUCHENE, Vinciane et all “The end of management as we know it”, May 2020 – BCG.
3Cobots: collaborative robots (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobot).
4HANCOCK, Bryan et all, “The Vanishing Middle Manager”, February 2021 – McKinsey & Company.
5BEAUCHENE, Vinciane et all “The end of management as we know it”, May 2020 – BCG.
6In the English translation of the expression “Managing by walking around”.