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The Incredible Shrinking Middle Manager: Flat is Back

June 28, 2015
Black MManager The role of the middle manager is one of the more maligned functions within organizations. Whether they’re the opinions of employees, management theorists or pseudo experts vying for attention, it seems that everyone likes to target middle managers as being redundant to organizations. These bouts of revelation come typically during slow economic growth periods, and especially during recessions.

While we’ve been technically out of recession for some six years, middle managers have been taking a shellacking of late. Whether it’s in the public sphere or corporate world, the numbers and percentage of middle managers in companies has been shrinking again, similar to previous slow growth periods.

It’s easy to pick the low-hanging fruit, whether middle managers, supervisors, back-office staff or staff providing direct customer service. Just don’t touch those in senior management positions. Of course there are exceptions in some companies, which take the axe down through the hierarchy.

However, there’s a reticence to negatively affect the lives of those hidden away in the corner ivory tower offices. And in the Government of Canada (and by association, the US Government) the span of control of executives has reached ridiculously low proportions, reminiscent of the traditional 1960s ratio of one manager for six to eight employees. That’s fine for those in supervisory positions, but not in today’s world for middle managers and certainly not for executives.

I just have to think of my 32 year-old son who works for a major bank, where he had during a recent assignment some 45 staff split between two major cities. Weekly air flights was the practice, working on weekends and available for last-minute conference calls was the norm. Federal public servants would go into apoplexy if faced with such demands.

Magnifying Glass What gets lost in the hyperbole is that middle managers–and supervisors–are the interface between senior management and staff. Middle managers are where staff first receive information that’s critical for their work. They’re where staff turn to for consoling, venting frustrations and requesting new career development opportunities.

Middle managers are the buffer and integrator of information that descends from the gods–those at the peak of the organizational pyramid. They decipher the hidden meanings in the correspondence from the top, actively inquiring into the facts.

Middle managers make a critical difference in how organizations function.

Unfortunately, not all companies understand the role of middle management. Yes, having excessive organizational layers is not desirable in today’s turbulent, competitive global economy. Organizations need to be flexible and adaptable. However, the issue is not just one of too many middle managers and supervisors in some situations, it’s more important to look upwards to try to determine how many layers are sandwiched between the middle and the top.

Witness recent cuts made by a number of Canadian companies. Rogers Communications, one of Canada’s telecom power triad, turfed hundreds of managers and 15% of executives. Bell Canada did the same previously, dumping 2,500 management jobs. Wal-Mart Canada eliminated 200 head office jobs, and Tim Horton’s (recently acquired by Burger King) chopped around 40% of its middle management jobs.

According to Statistics Canada, 10.4% of jobs in Canada in 1995 were in middle management. Two decades later that share now stands at 7.8%. In the context of the country’s labor force, which expanded by over a third during this 20 year period, the role and visibility of middle managers in organizations has clearly diminished.

Flat is Back.

Flat Earth Popular in the eighties and nineties, the concept of the flat organizational structure is undergoing a resurgence. U.S. online shoe retailer Zappos nuked all of its management positions this past spring. CEO Tony Hsieh has embraced what’s called a holocracy, in which employees are organized into overlapping circles of responsibilities. This intersection–interconnection–of job roles is supposed to produce more collaboration and better communication. Top management, in the absence of a middle management, conveys its strategic directions, goal setting and planning directly to the worker circles.

Created by Brian Robertson, a holocracy is another participative form of employee involvement in the workplace. In this short TED Talk Robertson provides an illuminating perspective on how organizations can re-organize to achieve better results by enabling employees.

Gen Y (19-34) loves the idea of any organizational design that reduces hierarchy and that gives them more freedom (however one may wish to define it). Gen X (35-49) will approach it trepidatiously, given it is assuming the management mantel from retiring Baby Boomers. And Boomers, notably the younger sub-set (50-59) will shake their heads collectively, muttering “Been there, done that.”

Will holocracy have any staying power? It depends, particularly on the results it produces for companies. The bottom line is regardless of label, these concepts–fads if you prefer–are about top management creating a work environment where people are able to perform to their fullest and, by logic, have the greatest positive impact on the organization’s results.

So let’s stop using middle managers as punching bags, the proxy for senior management lashing out when its ill-thought corporate strategies produce undesirable results. The challenge for top management is to simultaneously keep an eye on the distant horizon, moving the organization towards its vision, while striving to bring the best out of employees in tactical daily operations.

Changing corporate culture is not a tactical exercise. It’s about engaging the hearts and minds of people.

– Jim Taggart

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Motr permalink
    June 29, 2015 1:11 am

    …”Witness recent cuts made by a number of Canadian companies.” A lot of “cuts” made not because of companies “top management” interested (or understand how) in improving efficiency “for real”. Incompetence and greediness of top management – this is real problems for too many companies. As the saying goes:”They are too far from the people”. No profits will not satisfy the greedy and stupid.

  2. June 28, 2015 2:53 pm

    Hmmm, what I’m wondering is who is doing all of the work and reports and interface that middle managers used to do? Is it all being done by computers and email instructions now?

    Also, what are the implications for what young people who are interested in business school should study? Would you recommend that most go for the entrepreneurship specialty, since apparently most people will have to be self-employed in the future?

    • June 28, 2015 11:42 pm

      Lynne, you pose several challenging questions, which I’m confident “experts” would struggle to answer. I would suggest that the stresses that employees in many organizations (public private) are experiencing has been accelerated where middle managers and supervisors have been cut, leaving people to cope with greater ambiguity and uncertainty. The big smucks at the top certainly aren’t interested in interacting f2f with those farther down the organizational pyramid.

      Young people today starting careers have an immense challenge in securing footholds in the job market. By that I mean jobs that pay well, have benefits, some measure of security and facilitate one’s development, whether with the organization or with another one.

      I spent much of my career in the area of labor market and occupational forecasting. I’m at a bit of a loss to suggest what a young person should study and where to aim his or her career. The forecasts by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Statistics Canada are, excuse my language, mostly BS. I’ve been there, done that in times when occupational forecasting was enough of a challenge. But today? Forget it.

      Study engineering? Sure, except that loads of engineers in Canada and the US are underemployed. And not everyone has the aptitude for mathematics and applied sciences.

      Nursing (where we hear the mantra of the impact of an ageing population)? Fine, except for government cuts which affect publicly funded hospitals.

      Business admin? OK, since this has greater horizontal career mobility. However, the focus on the bottom line by companies makes for a highly competitive hiring process, with such unethical practices as unpaid internships as being the admission price.

      My advice to any student who is motivated to succeed is to take all the maths and sciences they can, combined with working on writing and public speaking skills and learning a second language. One interesting piece I just read is last week’s Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine, whose entire issue focused on computer coding. Those who are talented in writing code have the power according to BBW. Many organizations are slowly realizing that if their e-commerce is to grow and thrive investments in their online platforms are required. So if coding turns you on, this is a key skill to develop.

      Lastly, Fareed Zakaria (CNN’s GPS 360) has a new book out on the value of a liberal arta degree. As much as I enjoy Zakaria’s Sunday 360 show, I’m not comfortable with his touting liberal arts, and that’s from yours truly with a BA and two MAs.

      Hope I haven’t confused you more. 🙂

      • June 29, 2015 9:44 am

        Jim, have you seen this? It’s really quite a good article.

        I’m in a non-fiction bookclub where one of our members is a computer scientist who spent a decade in Silicon Valley. When our architect member proposed we read Cradle-to-Cradle in our bookclub, we actually had quite a discussioin about this exact topic, and our computer-scientist member made some very convincing arguments for how in the not-too-distant future, computers and robots will actually be able to take over all human work. I had not taken this seriously before this in-depth discussion. This article does a good job of seriously hitting some of those points of our discussion.

        I’ll check out Farid Zakaria’s book and see what he has to say.

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