Stuck in the Middle (Managers)

Feb 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Career advice, career challenges, personality

Last week’s post “Difficult Boss” discussed the importance of getting along with the boss.  Many of us fail to consider that managers also answer to bosses.  There is often a misconception that management is a club where once you are a member everything becomes easy.  Managers get paid more for doing less.  All a manager does is tell others what to do, then sit back and watch them work.  Managers have a different view.  Most feel they are stuck in the middle.

The career ladder infers only the person at the top has no one above him.  Everyone else answers to someone.  Even the CEO has to answer to the board of directors, and increasingly to the stockholders.  Although the pay and the perks increase with position, so does responsibility.  In my opinion, responsibility is the major management challenge.  On any level, fulfilling responsibilities takes management skills.  It is common to focus on the immediate task, without concern for the peripheral elements.  It takes management balance efforts and resources to achieve a goal. Even in a distributed team there is a tacit management function as team members volunteer or are assigned responsibilities. Viewed from a distance management and responsibility are subservient elements.  Upper management depends on the first line manager to achieve the company goals, and the employees depend on the manager to ensure the resources to accomplish their tasks.  The manager is stuck in the middle.

One may argue that responsibility is not unique to managers.  Employees are responsible for coming to work and doing their jobs.  While that is true the difference is the employee is only responsible for their personal performance, while the manager is held accountable for fulfilling  all the responsibilities within his scope.  For example, although it is an employee’s responsibility to come to work on time, it is a manger’s responsibility to take corrective action if they are late.  Thus while it is the employees responsibility to be on time, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure the employee fulfills their responsibility.  The manager is also accountable to their boss for the employee’s punctuality.  If the manager can’t ensure the employee will be at work on time, they have failed to fulfill their responsibility, and it is their boss’s responsibility to ensure the manager remedies the situation.

Managers have varying degrees of authority.  Most first line managers have very little authority and more often are an extension of upper management.  Although they are held accountable for achieving assigned goals, they have little authority to accomplish their task.  In most cases, the most authority a first line managers have are assignments and evaluations.  The way a manager employs their authority is a combination of management styles and skills.  On one side a manager’s authority can be used to bully and punish employees, and on the other the same authority can serve as incentives and rewards. (Bonuses and disciplinary actions are usually administered by HR and upper management.) Management skills and styles determine how a manager employs their authority.

Managers also experience a lot of stress. Many managers feel they are assigned tasks or projects without being provided the required resources to complete them.  This stress often causes the manager to take it out on the employees.  Instead of developing a cooperative working environment, the manager transfers the stress to the employee through bullying techniques. This is usually counter productive causing less work to be accomplished and the viscous cycle escalates.  The more the manager presses the less the employees produce.  The cycle continues until a working balance is reached where the manager lets up enough for the employees to accomplish the minimum amount of acceptable work. No one is happy.

There are managers who have good management and people skills.  These managers balance the need to get the work done with concern for the employee.  This environment usually produces the most efficient scenarios where the employees are willing to go the extra mile to get the job done. In return the manager recognizes the employees efforts and both sides benefit.  This is the textbook management model where managers and employees support each other to accomplish the assigned company goals.  There are several free tests on line that attempt to measure management potential and skills.  There is an article on the Mind Tools site that discusses management skills and has a short quiz.  Check it out, see how you do.

In my opinion the first line manager position is the most difficult.  As one progresses up the management hierarchy there appears to be more of a balance between responsibility and authority.  The work is more focused on the company’s strategic plan and there are less day-to-day administrative duties.  Middle and upper level managers usually have a support staff who attend to the more mundane aspects of the managers duties.  Although many employees work their way up though the ranks to middle management, this area is mostly populated by MBA and others with advanced management degrees.  This is the training ground for upper level positions.  If you are going to be stuck in the middle this is the middle to be stuck in.

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