Kool-Aid for Middle Management

Have you ever been accused by an unhappy employee of “drinking the Kool-Aid”? (Refers to blindly accepting a belief.)  A friend at a company which was recently acquired by a Fortune 100 company told me that one of his staff said that to him because he was supportive of corporate decisions. As a new manager, he is struggling with building a relationship with his staff, some of whom are displeased with the overall direction of the company.  

He has discovered what is probably the toughest part of being in middle management.

Middle managers have to connect the vision and objectives of executives with those employees who actually perform the work. Many executives tend to like things done promptly and in a manner they understand, but often don’t have a full appreciation of the work required or the people who have to do it. Middle managers have to motivate line supervisors and individual contributors who most often don’t understand the “vision” (which is often vague) or how their hard work will contribute to meeting business objectives.

A Wharton School blog, Why Middle Managers May Be the Most Important People in Your Company contends that they have a greater impact on company performance than other employees. It quotes Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick that middle managers have a tough job managing a finite set of resources, and because they can’t control everyone’s actions, they can easily frustrate those around them who don’t want to change.

A difficult, unappreciated role of a middle manager is to navigate through the system: that constantly changing sea of organizational dynamics, egos, employee relations, company culture, policies, etc. that can make the job so complicated and sometimes exasperating. 

So how can you as a middle manager be successful? By being technically competent, surrounded with talent that is additive to the team’s capabilities. Understand why senior management makes certain decisions; you may disagree, and it’s ok to respectfully voice it, as long as you are still supportive. And truly understand and empathize with your staff’s concerns.

It won’t be easy, but work to gain the trust of your staff as well as executives. Trust is constantly tested, and once lost by either side, it is nearly impossible to regain. As a middle manager, you become a communications conduit between the executives and your team(s). By understanding where each group is coming from you can ensure an effective relationship between them.

Further reading:

  1. Middle Management Excellence (Harvard Business School)

2.  The End of the Middle Manager (Harvard Business Review)

 3. View reader comments on the book The Truth About Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter (Amazon)

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