Middle Managers need less commands, more autonomy

Illustration Courtesy: www.isg-one.com

Benjamin (Ben) Rand
Massachusetts, Boston, USA, February 15, 2024

Skilled middle managers foster collaboration, inspire employees, and link important functions at companies. An analysis of more than 35 million job postings by Letian Zhang (Harvard Business School) paints a counterintuitive picture of today’s midlevel manager. Could these roles provide an innovation edge?

Middle managers are not going extinct. They are evolving.

Once a wasteland where careers stalled or abruptly ended in layoffs, middle management has adapted and is thriving, seeing double-digit growth in some industries.

Managing others is being redefined in an increasingly complex, technologically driven economy, suggests new research from Harvard Business School, and managers who can collaborate—not just supervise and discipline—are reaping the rewards.

Unleashing the potential

To support more autonomous, creative workers, organisations want managers to act “less as Army commanders and more as basketball coaches,” says Letian Zhang, the study’s author and an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School.

“Organisations are adopting a more bottom-up approach, so, they are trying to unleash the potential, the creativity, and the motivation of frontline employees. The manager’s job is less to tell them what to do, but more to inspire them. I think that it is just a smaller piece of a larger, grander transformation in organisations,” he said.

Good management now involves coordinating and collaborating with subordinates across functions to get things done, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Sociology. While artificial intelligence promises to transform the workplace and disrupt the organisational chart, Zhang’s research suggests that middle managers will still play a key role even in innovation-heavy industries, such as software development.

They often know how and when to connect groups with disparate skills—like engineering, sales, and market analysis—at key points in a project.

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Analysis of job postings

Zhang bases his conclusions on a unique linguistic analysis of more than 34 million online job postings for managerial openings in the United States between 2007 and 2021. He also gathered and analysed one million newspaper job postings, six million manager resumes and job reviews, and 430,000 Indeed.com job reviews.

The data shows that Managerial job postings that required collaborative skills and experience increased by three times between 2007 and 2021. By contrast, job postings that included supervisory capabilities decreased by 23%.

The use of collaborative phrases in newspaper job postings grew by 15% between 1980 and 2000. Before 1980, references to collaboration were scarce.

The number of managerial resumes listing supervisory experience decreased by 8% between 1985 and 2015, while those highlighting collaboration increased by 37%.

References to supervisory duties in Indeed.com reviews decreased by 22%, while mentions of collaborative/teamwork skills grew by 28%.

Challenging conventional wisdom

During the 1980s and 1990s, middle managers became prime targets of large-scale downsizing at the behest of shareholder activists—yet the ranks of middle managers never really declined. Zhang’s data helps explain why.

Managers made up 13% of the US labour force in 2022, up from 9.2% in 1983, according to the study. Their share has continued to grow in recent years, jumping 23% between 2005 and 2020. During the same period, wages for managers also increased proportionally compared to those of non-managers.

Zhang believes that growth says more about changes in the economy than it does about firms allowing themselves to return to days of bloated, ineffective managerial ranks.

Managers are handling a more complex set of technologically driven tasks that require substantial skill in directing processes while empowering workers to contribute to the fullest.

Middle managers unlock … innovation?

Zhang identifies a correlation between collaborative job postings and innovation in firms.

He examines the research and development expenses of companies in his job posting sample, finding that firms that spent more on R&D also tend to seek managers adept at collaboration. The number of collaborative postings also increased as R&D budgets grew.

Yet Zhang notes that the potential for large differences depends on the industry.

“Software companies may have a greater need for a collaborative type of manager to give workers a lot of autonomy and empowerment. But for hardware companies also in the tech sector, it is possible that there’s going to be a lot less of that,” Zhang suggests.

Climbing the career ladder

The trend toward collaboration may make work more enjoyable and productive for front-line employees, but it can complicate life for managers, Zhang said.

They still maintain traditional supervisory responsibilities such as setting work schedules, enforcing human resource policies, conducting job reviews, and more. At the same time, managers are also accountable for meeting departmental and organisational goals and objectives. It puts the middle manager in the literal middle, Zhang said.

“Managers are facing competing pressures from both ends. They may not have absolute authority from workers from the bottom up, yet they are still facing the performance targets and other pressures from the top down,” he said.

The collaborative manager may have to reassess plans for career advancement, Zhang says, as organizational titles and job descriptions begin to reflect the changed landscape. As a result, managers may have to look for new positions more externally than internally.

“It is now much more common for people to move to another employer and maybe move up in rank. The career ladder is still there, but it is changing how you play the game,” Zhang said.

Adapting your management style

The evolution of management toward collaboration calls for developing a new set of skills, but employees need to remain flexible and agile, Zhang said.

The world is changing so rapidly that it is hard to say how management will look in 10 or 20 years when today’s younger employees become managers. So managers need to develop “foundational” skills that allow them to adapt to changing situations.

“The technical skills are still important. But I think it is increasingly going to be the social skills, the cognitive skills, the ability to learn things and the ability to adapt that are going to be more important,” Zhang said.

According to him,  more important than learning the specifics of complex programming languages such as Python will be knowing how to learn these things.

Interpersonal skills will become even more important in a collaborative environment, Zhang predicted.

“It is impossible to know everything as a manager. So, your role is to understand the people that you’re managing; hence the need for good social skills,” he said.

Zhang also notes that social skills can have varied definitions, particularly in a global economy. What’s successful in one company or country might not be successful in the next one.

“A lot of these come from parental influences and community and the neighbourhood. So, I don’t extrapolate too far, but I wonder about the implications of this for inequality in some ways,” Zhang said.

Benjamin (Ben) Rand is a Partner at Blackburn, Conte, Schilling & Click based in Richmond, Virginia, USA. The above article, which appeared in The Harvard Gazette of the Harvard Business School, has been reproduced here with gratitude.

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