How to Manage the Middle-Management Crisis

One camp suggests simply dispensing with the typical org chart. But while you can't get rid of hierarchies, you can make them smarter.

These are challenging times for middle managers. Asked to take on more roles in both in-person and virtual environments, many have been eager for a change. A recent report on the problem by CNN cites a 2022 Gartner study, which found that about a quarter of mid-level leaders “feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities” and a similar percentage “don’t feel mentally engaged at work.”

So the same blues that are hitting the CEO’s office seem to be trickling down throughout organizations. Part of the problem, according to the CNN report, is that more middle managers are expected to be in the office and are feeling the pinch of less flexibility. And many are dealing with those issues while also being new to the job, slotted into positions after a spike in resignations. As Andrew Challenger, senior VP of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas told CNN, “There’s not a lot of wisdom or experience they can get from [more tenured managers]. That is exhausting.”

One solution: Just get rid of the middle managers.

A recent report in Insider recently made that blunt argument. (Headline: “It’s time to get rid of managers. All of them.” [paywall]) Rather than force organizations to work under the supervision of department heads—with all the risks of conflicting management styles and silo-ing that come with it—it’s better, the article suggests, to simply let teams organically self-manage. As the article puts it: “Flattening the hierarchy and doing away with most managers could help companies retain talent and attract a newly empowered workforce, but only if they implement it right.”

Self-managing workers have to be either natural, lifelong learners or want to learn and have a sense that things can be better.

That’s a very big if—with flashing lights and a loud siren blaring a-ooga a-ooga behind it—but it’s not a new concept. Companies have implemented a self-management scheme called holacracy for more than a decade, with intermittent success. In theory, holacracy is a boon for workers who are now more used to flexibility than ever; it gives them an opportunity to take the reins of decision-making processes. And it removes a deliberation process than can be more cumbersome in hybrid offices. 

But as the Insider article shows, holacracy isn’t for everybody. “You want people who are going to thrive in this environment,” said one executive. “They have to be either natural, lifelong learners or want to learn and have a sense that things can be better.” Moreover, no organization can escape hierarchies entirely. After experimenting with the format, the publishing platform Medium now uses what it calls “holacracy lite” where managers are there to keep teams from worrying about holacracy’s implementation rules. And somebody has to approve the raises and promotions, after all. “It actually made a lot of sense to consolidate a lot of those functions under the same person,” one former Medium employee told Insider.

I’m not going to tell you that your association should dismiss its department leaders and leave rank-and-file employees to their own devices. But it’s worth considering the news about middle-management struggles and the holocracy concept as an opportunity for a thought exercise. How much flexibility are you giving your teams to self-manage, and what would an appropriate role for a department head be in that context? Are the in-person and virtual work arrangements making things more efficient, or complicating them? If they’re complicated, what role can the CEO take in untangling them?

Organizations don’t need to be unregulated, but they might stand to think about what a less complex regulation might look like. As the Insider piece puts it, “as the demand increases for better work-life balance, professional integrity, and inclusivity, a flattened structure may be the way to go.”

How have middle managers been handling their roles at your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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