Being a middle manager is tough, but you can thrive and make an impact at work

  • Living
  • Monday, 10 Jun 2024

Anyone in middle management typically has to hold their own on several fronts and also ensure unity. — dpa

A PROMOTION to department manager or team leader in a company is often a career goal of junior staff members. It offers prestige, responsibility and – ideally – a higher salary. But as nice as the job titles sound, middle management presents many challenges.

"Being in the middle, you're pulled between different demands," says business psychologist Andreas Hemsing: namely day-to-day operations on the one hand, and the strategic guidelines of top management on the other.

"You're sandwiched right in between," concurs career coach Claudia Zeimes. As a team leader, she explains, you've got to go along with the company's goals and strategies and pass them on to lower-level employees, even though you may not have been involved in their formulation.

How can you successfully perform a balancing act between these levels of the company hierarchy? "Your allegiance must be clear," says Hemsing, who advises identifying with senior management. "Then you'll consistently make decisions in line with its goals and expectations."

If a middle manager positions themself as a representative of sorts for junior staff, "they'll always have an identity conflict," warns Hemsing, as they're caught between the executives' clear expectations and a desire to act in the interests of the workforce.

So as a middle manager, "you have to accept that there are employees who hate you," he says.

This is particularly true when the company isn't running smoothly, notes Zeimes, who describes management as "no picnic." Sometimes, especially during crises, it's necessary to clearly exercise your authority, she says.

The biggest mistake a middle manager can make, according to Zeimes, is to try to suit everyone or treat all employees equally, a la one-size-fits-all, with no focus on individuals.

Decisive action

Instead, clear and decisive action is key. "You've got to communicate expectations, coordinate outcomes and let consequences prevail – irrespective of the person," Hemsing says, adding that you must also see to it that employees adhere to certain binding principles and values.

As such, managerial staff serve as a "lighthouse" whose behaviour is visible and to be emulated.

Along with this, middle managers should be cognizant of their position, regularly reflect on it and be "very clear as to what their role is," remarks Zeimes.

"Intensive self-management" is important so that you don't spread yourself to thin and then founder, she says. "Only those who can manage themselves should manage others."

The ability to remain within your bounds is essential too, according to Hemsing. Having decided that your allegiance is to senior management, you can still go to dinner with a junior staff member, he says, "but the conversations that matter take place with the people at your level or higher."

And you shouldn't participate in the "little, everday flippancies" and "teasing" common among co-workers, he says. "You've got to learn to block that out."

What makes someone suited to middle management and able to handle the demands placed on them from both above and below? "The position definitely requires exceptional emotional stability," Hemsing says, and you've got to be honest with yourself about what attracts you to the position.

"If it's merely the money or prestige, you'll burn out. And you'll be much too open to attack," he warns.

'You've got to like people'

For the company, he says, you'll become a non-porous stratum of clay in the hierarchy, so to speak. You'll mostly bring your own interests to bear and massage decisions by your superiors until they're aligned with your wishes.

"As a result, superordinate projects won't seep down into the organisation, because they're held up by the stratum of clay," says Hemsing, who offers this advice: "Serve the superordinate objectives, not your personal status and financial interests."

Zeimes points to another prerequisite for middle managers: "You've got to like people," which she says includes understanding their diversity and being able to see their points of view.

Considering the many challenges of middle management, one may wonder whether it has any upside at all. For Hemsing, the answer is clear: "impact." Team leaders and department managers see the effects of their decisions more plainly since they have greater scope to get things done.

Zeimes puts it this way: "When you accomplish things in a team, morale is good, the results positive, you're working together and can shape the future ... it just has this special 'flow.'" – dpa

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