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The Plight of the Middle Manager

Understanding the role and stress of the mid-level leader.

Key points

  • The middle manager is the unsung hero of any organization.
  • Many organizations' leadership strategy is unsustainable.
  • We ask too much of middle managers, likely resulting in stress or even burnout.

The middle manager is the unsung hero of any organization.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler from Pexels
Source: Photo by Susanne Jutzeler from Pexels

Typically, middle managers are promoted or hired because they are both experts in their field and have strong people skills. As a newly minted manager, you are excited to be recognized for these skills and to begin building your career up the corporate ladder. However, the role is complex and the expectations are vast. Both of these facts are frequently underestimated by organizations and by the incoming manager.

Many organizations' leadership strategy is unsustainable. We see managers having to do more than manage—they also have to be leaders. That is, on top of managing workloads, resources, budgets etc., they are taking on strategy dissemination, employee coaching, and developing multi-year plans. Many middle managers are now also accountable for succession planning, complex individual development plans, business development, and more.

To get all these requirements done, managers either need to cut corners or work overtime—both likely to result in stress or even burnout. Senior leaders see the middle managers struggling and exclaim "it must be the Peter Principal". That is, these middle managers have risen to their level of incompetency and that's where they will stay. Senior leaders aren't often thinking, "Are these roles designed with unreasonable expectations?"

What's even worse is that the middle manager role is disappearing. Downsizing efforts saw the middle manager as just another bureaucratic hierarchy level or even a luxury for larger firms. The flattening of organizations was seen as a win for employee empowerment. But without the middle manager, we get even more direct reports per each senior leader, reducing the amount of time for one-to-one conversations, coaching, and development. And without that close relationship with their leader, employees will leave.

With the disappearing middle manager role, the skills gap becomes an almost impossible leap. Recruitment for senior positions has to come from outside. Consistent external hiring dissuades employees that they will ever grow within this organization. With larger gaps in role requirements, executives' ability to relate and ability to translate the big picture to day-to-day tasks suffers.

So what can we do?

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