Why the Middle Management Crisis Persists

The challenges that make life tough for department heads and team leads haven’t gone away. One path to a solution: Treat middle management as an end in itself.

It’s still a tough time for leaders who aren’t top leaders. They’ve been asked to shoulder the load of handling hybrid work, DEI implementation, and a workforce with deeper concerns about wellness. And that’s while still being the people responsible for implementing the CEO’s directives about organizational direction. 

At associations, particularly smaller ones, these challenges tend to fall to department heads, not conventional “middle managers”; the head of membership, or meetings, or communications are still expected to lead through a constantly shifting environment. So the chatter that maybe we don’t need middle managers anymore won’t work there; the role remains essential.

As consultant Juliana Stancampiano recently wrote for CEOworld, “good middle managers inspire employees, minimize confusion and roadblocks, and act as a buffer to senior management. For the average worker, their manager is more important to their success and well-being than the CEO.”

Middle managers need clear guidelines on what decisions have been delegated to them, and what they have power over.

But that also means the CEO is responsible for the manager’s success and well-being. At the heart of that, HR expert Rebecca Houghton wrote last week for CEO Magazine, is clear communication and a sense of empowerment. CEOs go awry when they effectively expect those beneath them to read their minds—they need to “regularly engage middle managers on the evolution of policies, initiatives, and strategic direction, and regularly seek their feedback during and after implementation,” she wrote.

More than just communication, though, those middle managers and department heads need a sense of empowerment—clear guidelines on what decisions have been delegated to them, and what they have power over. As Houghton puts it: “Many midlevel leaders feel they are at the mercy of everyone else’s agenda. CEOs need to show them how to create their own.”

Why is it that so many of those middle managers don’t get that kind of support, despite clearly needing it? One factor may be a matter of how they’re perceived—that is, people who aren’t quite skilled or talented enough to lead the organization, and as such aren’t worth the additional support. 

Set aside the inefficiencies that such an attitude creates. It’s worth recognizing that middle management is an area that demands its own form of expertise, and that provides its own satisfactions. In a recent Fortune essay, Luminary CEO Cate Luzio suggested that the group ought to be seen as a distinct “power middle”: “There’s a stigma around middle management,” she wrote, “but for some, that space is where just the right level of responsibility and achievement align with the balance they seek between work and life.” 

Those workers, Luzio wrote, can do more to demonstrate their approach to the role. But CEOs can also respect not just the work middle managers do but also work to integrate them into the overall strategy of the organization. Being happy in the middle doesn’t mean they don’t want or need professional development. To the contrary, they need the skills that make them an essential bridge between the overall strategy and the places in the organization where the work truly gets done.


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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