Being a Middle Manager: Is there an identity crisis?

Friday, September 11, 2015 - 13:26

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Johnson

‘Who in the world am I?  Ah, that’s the greatest puzzle.’ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Although Carroll wasn’t referring to the dilemmas of a middle manager’s identity, his words resonate well with today’s managers. When once being a middle manager was cause to celebrate, today our middle managers seem lost.

If you were a middle manager in the 1970s, you were probably sitting pretty.  This was the middle management golden age.  Careers were booming.

But it didn’t last.  The 1980s brought the beginning of the new lean organisation and middle managers felt the impact more than anyone.

The result was a new generation of vulnerable and insecure middle managers, or so they say.

As a middle manager, what do you think? What’s it like to be a middle manager? How do you cope with high performance expectations and minimal support and role clarity?  Is this your reality?

The thoughts of a middle manager matter.  As management educators we hear tales of woe.  We hear of frustrations around work levels, communication, strategic influence and the constant pressure of ‘stepping up,’ whatever that means.

Studies into middle management give insight into management effectiveness and challenges.  We know that organisational success is reduced with weak middle management, which attests to the important role that these people play.  Yet we also know that of all levels of management, the middle manager often struggles the most.

Most studies tell us what managers should be doing and why.  Out of this myriad of studies, one stands out and brings a new perspective.  It asks about the middle manager’s professional identity.

It’s not unusual in the workplace for people to look to senior officers to set the boundaries of responsibility and accountability; to have them empower, enable and offer support.  Middle managers have been looking to senior managers for support and clarification for years and yet the uncertainty around the middle management role remains.  Why is this so?

This study suggests that the self-identity of a middle manager requires attention.  The authors encourage middle managers to support each other to develop a confident management identity and to present this explicitly in the workplace.  They suggest that this will bring about a new reality for middle managers.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider the journey into middle management.  We join an organisation at a young age or in a junior level.  Our ‘adult’ or ‘professional’ identity begins to develop.  We transform ourselves into a professional in the workplace.  Our professional identity sets in.

At the point of promotion to middle management, many managers continue to operate with the same professional identity.  They remain engineers, accountants, lawyers, computer programmers or administrators.  Yet they are now managers. 

A clear management identity allows managers to assert themselves with colleagues, staff and senior managers. It facilitates legitimacy, purpose and status in the organisation and in society in general.  It offers boundaries for responsibility and accountability and it gives the middle management population certainty. It ensures stability, security and confidence. It creates a social and organisational reality that frames the sense of who middle managers are.

It’s not the role of the senior manager to determine and embed this identity.  It’s the role of the middle manager. 

Identities are developed through social interactions; through communication and interactions with others. The discourse around middle management determines the reality of middle management.  

This is a key issue.  Are middle managers doing themselves an injustice by speaking too often of their frustrations and challenges?  Are they seen in a negative light and if so, is this negativity generating an identity of insecurity and struggling capability? Are the challenges of being a middle manager inadvertently self-perpetuating? If they are, can middle managers themselves turn this around?

There may be a significant benefit for middle managers to join forces and develop a new middle management identity. This would require the middle manager to shift away from the current identity of being a talented, technical professional ‘dumped’ into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.

Middle managers will gain from a strong, positive management identity.  They can empower themselves through a confident identity that forms a platform from which they can effectively influence up and manage down.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But the starting point to enhanced middle management effectiveness may be hiding behind identity. 

As a middle manager, develop a positive management vision and identity.  Do this yourself and in conversation with other middle managers.  Present your thoughts at work and join discussions with positively worded input.  Don’t wait for others – staff or senior managers – to present an optimistic portrayal of middle management, do it yourself and encourage your peers to do it as well.  Build the reality that you want through your interactions with others and through your language.

Many middle managers had positive, confident identities as professionals in their fields before they were promoted to a management role.  The lack of clarity and positivity in the middle management identity encouraged them to remain focused on their professional identity; the ‘I’m still an IT professional, not just a manager…’ mentality dominated. 

While the professional identity dominated, the management identity failed to evolve and strengthen. Uncertainty in middle management became the norm. Where was the pride?  Where did middle managers go for legitimacy, for purpose and for status? Is this the cause of helplessness and frustration?

Only middle managers themselves can address this.  The call here is for middle managers to network, to communicate and to join forces to build a positive identity that sits at the core of the middle management profession.  Believe in your legitimacy and build a reality that is clear and certain.  Don’t look to others for your identity and legitimacy, look to each other.

Remember that identities are developed through communication and interpersonal relations.  How you present as a middle manager is how you are perceived.  What you say becomes what you are.  Speak only of frustrations and challenges and your reality will be set in negativity.

Speak of wins, of success, of achievement and of middle management pride and build a profession of middle managers that is proud of their identity and of their role in organisational success. 


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