Why Middle Managers are the Fall Guy (and How to Fix That)

Too often, middle managers get a bad rap. Among the ranks, middle managers can sometimes be seen as inept and more concerned with preserving their position than meeting the needs of their subordinates. These key roles often get blamed for failures from both the top and lower levels of the organization. They are often caught in a no-win situation, creating higher levels of anxiety and emotional reactions. On the other hand, at least one recent study has found that effective middle managers can contribute directly to improving an organization’s bottom line. Why, then, is there such stark disagreement? Perhaps the answer lies in what’s coming down the pipe from senior leadership.

The Role of the Middle Manager

In most organizations, one of the roles of senior leadership is to establish and articulate the strategies that will be used to achieve the company’s goals. Middle managers are to execute that strategy by leading their subordinates in the right direction. Of course, there is the potential for a wide gap to form between the development of a strategy and its implementation and execution. In that gap, we’ll find ineffective middle managers who are not motivated by the organization’s mission while also being worried about the consequences of failing that mission. 

That fear of failure may be at the heart of the problem as senior leaders who are committed to the mission and strategies blame the managers for being incompetent, and the ranks feel unsupported by a manager who appears to be more committed to retaining their position rather than the success of his or her team. In other words, middle managers become the fall guy for a systemic problem that’s likely to be pervasive throughout the organization.

The Rise of the Middle Manager

According to a report from Gallup, managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement across business units. The report also found that only 35 percent of managers are engaged and that employees who have a highly engaged manager are almost 60 percent more likely to be engaged themselves.

To improve the engagement of managers—and, therefore, their subordinates—senior leaders must close the gap between the strategies they have developed and their expectations for its execution. They must find a way to connect managers to the vision and mission of the organization, as well as the merits of individual strategies.

Closing that gap starts by ensuring that the organization has a clearly articulated mission and vision that serves all potential stakeholders, including the community, customers, and employees. When managers can see that their purpose is more significant than simply ensuring their subordinates complete checklists, they can begin developing the engagement that leads to motivation.

Respect is the Magic Word

After spending several decades talking to and observing middle managers, one expert compiled a list of some of the problems that lie in the gap between strategy and implementation. While the list contains a dozen points, most of them can be summarized under the umbrella of respect. Some of the specific struggles that were noted include managers who feel forced to accomplish mandates without sufficient resources, feeling unappreciated, feeling excluded from decision-making that affects them, and feeling expendable when the organization needs a fall guy. 

The result of the accumulation of these types of problems are middle managers who are disengaged and lacking the motivation and energy necessary to inspire themselves and their subordinates; a sort of domino effect of a disincentivized workforce. The good news is that these dominoes are relatively easy to pick up and send cascading in the opposite direction. The correction begins when senior leadership reimagines the role of the middle manager and reframes the position from a more respectful vantage point. 

The first step is to include middle managers in the development of strategies, not just their execution, so managers not only feel heard, but also have an opportunity to connect more deeply with the expectations of the strategy and how strategies tie in with the organization’s overall mission. After all, it’s nearly impossible for managers to bring this energy to their subordinates when they cannot internalize it themselves. Then, senior leaders must work to support managers as they go forward to deploy the plans among their teams.

Supporting the Middle Manager

To develop the successful middle managers that are necessary to keep an organization moving toward its goals, one expert suggests a series of interventions from senior leadership. First, middle managers must be able to take ownership of their work if they are to be proud of the results. This happens when people are free to make decisions. Senior leaders should act as guides during decision-making rather than simply handing down prearranged plans of action.

Next, middle managers cannot be afraid to do their jobs. Senior leadership must work to cultivate a culture of growth, appreciation, and respect and avoid sabotaging the manager’s growth by not allowing them to make decisions, contribute ideas, and by forcing them to be held accountable for every failure. No more fall guys!

Lastly, middle managers need to feel personal connections within the organization. Most avoid developing true friendships with their subordinates to maintain professional boundaries, so senior leaders should fill that void with genuine mentorship that includes the manager’s full range of interests and career goals. Managers need to feel supported, like someone “has their back” and will stand behind them when necessary, and this trust can be developed with authentic mentorship.

The Secret Recipe

Employee engagement is the secret sauce for successful organizations, and highly engaged middle managers are directly responsible for the engagement of their teams. Better engagement leads to an increase in productivity and morale while reducing absenteeism and costly turnovers. Senior leaders who are willing to focus on keeping middle managers engaged will keep these linchpins in the loop when relevant decisions are made, accept responsibility when things go wrong, support managers with the resources they need to execute strategies and serve as genuine mentors to keep managers growing.