Middle managers often find themselves in a unique and challenging position within the corporate hierarchy. They are neither at the top nor at the bottom but somewhere in between, constantly shifting between the roles of a subordinate and a superior. This dual identity can lead to a complex set of psychological and professional challenges.
This article explores these challenges through the lens of a new Theory of Power framework by Eric M. Anicich and Jacob B. Hirsh. It offers fresh insights into the middle manager’s dilemma and provides strategies for both organizations and middle managers to navigate this complex landscape effectively.
Understanding the Middle Manager’s Position
Middle managers are typically positioned in the middle range of the corporate hierarchy, a zone often referred to as ‘middle power.’ Traditional views of power in organizations tend to be unidirectional, focusing on either how subordinates deal with superiors or vice versa. However, the new Theory of Power framework challenges this perspective by introducing the concept of a continuum of a sense of power.
In this continuum, individuals are not always in a position of power or always in a position of subordination. Instead, their interactions can be either downward (with subordinates) or upward (with superiors). Senior managers, positioned higher in the hierarchy, usually have a sense of high power due to predominantly downward interactions. Conversely, frontline employees, situated lower in the hierarchy, typically have a sense of low power because their interactions are mostly upward.
Middle managers, however, find themselves near the middle of this power continuum. Their ratio of downward versus upward interactions is more balanced, placing them in a constantly alternating state between subordinate and superior roles. This positioning on the power continuum leads to unique challenges and psychological consequences that are often overlooked in organizational dynamics.
Challenges Faced by Middle Managers
The frequent shift between upward and downward interactions leads to what psychologists call ‘frequent vertical code switching.’ Middle managers must constantly toggle between different codes of behavior and norms depending on their interaction – acting deferentially towards superiors while exhibiting authority with subordinates. This constant switching is not just a practical challenge but also a psychological one, as it disrupts the formation of a stable, consistent professional identity.
This situation often results in role conflict for middle managers, who must meet the expectations of being both a leader and a subordinate. The internal tension between these conflicting expectations and behaviors can be significant. It leads to a sense of instability and uncertainty, making it challenging for middle managers to settle into a singular role or identity. They find themselves continuously oscillating between being the decision-maker and the decision-follower, which can be mentally exhausting and lead to decreased job satisfaction and increased stress.
The Approach/Inhibition/Avoidance (AIA) Theory of Power framework, based on neuropsychological research, provides insight into the dominant neural motivational systems for individuals across different power ranges. For individuals with a high sense of power, the brain activates the Behavioral Approach System (BAS), leading to positive emotions and reward-focused behaviors. Those with a low sense of power experience activation of the Flight-Fight-Freeze System (FFFS), resulting in fear-dominated emotions and threat-avoidance behaviors.
Middle managers are prone to the activation of the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS). This system is triggered due to the anxiety caused by role conflict and frequent vertical code switching. Unlike frontline employees who primarily focus on avoiding immediate threats, middle managers engage in cautious behavior in anticipation of potential conflicts and threats. This neural response can inhibit their behavior, making them less likely to take risks or assert themselves in certain situations.
Strategies for Organizations and Senior Leaders
To address the challenges faced by middle managers, organizations and senior leaders can adopt several strategies. One effective approach is to flatten the hierarchy. A less rigidly hierarchical structure reduces the pressure on middle managers by decreasing both upward and downward interactions and minimizing the distance between different levels of the organization.
Simplifying the reporting structure can also be beneficial. Creating organizational structures where middle managers have one boss and multiple subordinates, instead of multiple bosses and multiple subordinates, can reduce the complexity of their role. Additionally, minimizing meetings where middle managers must oscillate between subordinate and superior roles can help alleviate stress.
It is also crucial to avoid micromanaging middle managers. When senior leaders micromanage, it exacerbates the vertical role switching and adds to the stress. Instead, senior leaders should provide overarching strategies and allow middle managers to remain in a state of high-power as they guide their subordinates in implementing these strategies.
Helping middle managers to see their roles as integrated rather than segmented is another important step. Organizations can assist managers in developing a coherent and integrated identity that spans the boundaries of their roles. For example, explicitly linking their middle-power duties to the broader organizational mission can help create a self-identity that is not split between being a superior and a subordinate but is instead unified in being a key middle manager.
Finally, setting formal interaction routines for both downward and upward interactions can make it more comfortable for middle managers to switch between these roles. Clearly defined routines can provide a sense of structure and predictability, helping to reduce the psychological toll of constant role switching.
The middle manager’s dilemma, as revealed through the new Theory of Power framework, highlights the complex challenges faced by those positioned in the middle of the corporate hierarchy. Understanding these challenges is crucial for organizations and senior leaders who aim to foster a healthy, productive work environment.
By recognizing the unique position of middle managers and adopting strategies to support them, companies can mitigate the stress and anxiety associated with this role, leading to a more cohesive and effective organizational structure.