In defense of middle managers

They're increasingly targeted for layoffs, but they're an essential communications channel in a company, says a new book.

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By Lawrence Delevingne and J. Brandon Darin, reporters

Paul Osterman, author of The Truth About Middle Managers

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's a scary time for all workers, but what about middle management, the often-overlooked center of a business? Are they an unnecessary layer between line workers and senior management? One scholar says no. Paul Osterman, professor of human resources and management at M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management, recently published The Truth About Middle Managers (Harvard Business Press), arguing why this in-between group of workers is actually integral to an organization. In an interview with Fortune, Osterman talked about the plight of middle managers in a down economy.

What are the misconceptions about middle managers?

It's less misconception than lack of clarity out there, so there are a couple different views of middle managers. One is the view that they're both victims and villains. The victim view is the Organization Man perspective, in which they're conforming to a larger organization and have very little identity of their own. The villain view is the one in which they're seen as kind of wasteful overhead.

Then against that, there's the hero-empowered view. The hero view is the perspective of business historians, that the growth of large-scale American enterprise depended on middle managers because you just couldn't achieve the scale that we have without people doing the kind of planning work that they do. And the kind of empowered view is that all the downsizing and de-layering has left middle managers to be like internal entrepreneurs that have much more scope.

What have the last six months have been like for middle management?

In some sense, it has just been an intensification of what the last 20 years have been. We've seen a very substantial shift in the willingness of corporations to move from the view that white-collar work is kind of a fixed cost that you just can't move, and if layoffs take place, it's with front-line workers. For the last 20 years, white-collar workers and managers have been vulnerable to layoff. So, in that sense, what's happened in the last six months is just a little more intense than what's been going on since the mid 1980s.

Are middle managers suffering more in this economy?

It's clear that managers are vulnerable and it's clear that they have less job security than they did in the past, but what I do show in the book is that most middle managers are not losing their jobs. Now, virtually all middle managers are nervous, and in that sense it's a new world. You didn't used to have to be worried; now you do.

You say middle managers are less loyal to their employers. Could you explain?

I do argue that middle managers like their work. They're what I call craft workers: they're very loyal to the tasks they do, they get a lot of enjoyment out of it, and they're loyal to their work group, but what they have lost is loyalty to their larger employer, and there are a set of reasons for that. One reason is they perceive top management as having feathered their own nest, been greedy, and a lot of the management that I've talked to made comments to that effect, and it really does have an impact on their attitudes. Secondly, they perceive that the organization has reduced its commitment to them. That is to say, although most of them won't lose their jobs, some of them will, so the sense of reciprocity is diminished. And then thirdly, it's harder and harder for middle managers to climb the ladder because there are fewer rungs in the ladder and because companies are more willing to bring in outsiders if they want to. But to be clear, it's a loss of loyalty to the larger organization and to senior management. It's not a loss of interest or commitment to doing a good job. Those are two different things going on.

So what's the result of that?

There's more jumping around, there's more cynicism, there's less willingness to go the extra mile. There's no question people are working hard, and they're probably working harder now because there's fewer people to do the work, and it's just a lot more stress.

What should business leaders know about middle management now?

There are things to do and things to avoid. Clearly in this environment, there's going to be layoffs and restructuring, but I think that It's pretty clear that, first off, top management has to be willing to share the pain, that it can't be perceived as top management pushing the cost entirely on other people. And secondly, there should be as much transparency about the process as possible, how it's being done, what criteria are being used. And to the extent possible, top management needs to articulate a vision of where the organization is going because people felt that they were just being buffeted by these shocks with no sense of kind of future outcome or direction. More broadly, if upward mobility is going to be increasingly difficult in an organization, which it probably will be, we need to find a way to give people kind of a sense of achievement and accomplishment in other ways, moving people around horizontally or laterally, finding ways for people to augment their skills, broadening out jobs so that people have a sense of movement in their careers.

What should middle managers do to improve their standing?

Actually, their reputation has been more damaged in the literature and popular discussion about them than it is within the organization. I think, if you talk to senior management, they know that they can't function without a strong, effective middle management core. Middle management plays a central role, not just in making these kinds of decisions, executing as they do, but they're the information channel in the organization. Senior management doesn't talk to everybody; they communicate their direction down through middle management. So I think from the point of view of top management, they understand the importance of middle-management difficulties. They're engaging in other actions that kind of undermine them. Take the way restructuring is often done: without a clear set of goals and procedures. In addition, much of the rhetoric that surrounds downsizing and reengineering, rhetoric about the dead hand of bureaucracy and empire building, is demoralizing.  To top of page

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