In Praise of Middle Managers

Middle managers don’t get a lot of attention or respect. Most business literature focuses on the actions of companies’ senior leaders. Most reorganization efforts try to squeeze the role out through “flattening” or “right-sizing.” Even most business satires are targeted squarely at middle managers, think Michael Scott or Bill Lumberg. But leadership happens at all levels. In most organizations, the impact of middle managers is just as important as that of senior leadership. In a recent study, that impact quantified and researchers found that a good middle manager was worth almost two team members.

In a working paper released last year titled “The Value of Bosses,” Stanford’s Edward Lazaer and Kathryn Shaw, as well as University of Utah’s Christopher Stanton examined the inner workings of a technology-based service firm and calculated the effectiveness of teams and bosses. Because the company used computers to measure the output of teams every hour, it was possible to gather productivity data for nearly 24,000 workers and almost 2,000 bosses for five years. In total, that’s about 6 million productivity measurements. On average, the service teams had nine members and employees changed supervisors four times a year, making it possible to isolate the effects of certain managers.

When they had calculated all of the comparisons, the research team found that adding a tenth worker to teams results in a productivity bump of around 11 percent. However, replacing a low-quality managers with a high-quality one bumped productivity by 12 percent, a significant increase. In their study, the average boss can add 1.75 times the productivity of adding a tenth team member. Clearly, middle managers add value that’s worth of a little recognition.

So what does it take to become a praise-worthy boss?

Teaching. The researchers found that the top-performing managers in the study were more likely to focus on teaching their team solid work skills or habits. They didn’t just supervise employees; they made them better. The results of this study are compelling, not just for middle managers but also for senior leaders. If you are a middle manager, start focusing on how you can better lead your team through teaching and coaching them to improve. If you’re a senior leader, give your middle managers a little praise…then teach them to teach others.


  1. says

    The role of every managerial-leader is to add value to the decision making and judgment of staff. If you are not adding value to your team, you are worthless.

    • says

      Great point. I think too often when productivity is a problem, many managers default is to role of their sleeves and do it themselves. Focusing on training and teaching, however, seems to have a much bigger return on effort.

    • says

      Edward, totally agree and actually, given the structure of the company…I think front-line and middle managers were lumped together for the data collection. Thanks so much.

  2. mbecker908 says

    Praising middle managers? I think not. By and large middle managers are nothing but insulators between the people who actually do the work (employees and first line managers) and executives who value a big pyramid more than they value productivity.

    Every layer of middle managers effectively doubles the administrative workload of first line managers. They are taken away from what should be their prime mission, working with employees to increase effectiveness and productivity. A higher administrative workload and more reports do exactly the opposite.

    Senior management/executives should be spending a significant amount of time out of their offices and on the floor where the actual work is being done, where customers are touched and where the business is won or lost. Instead, they “delegate” that to a middle manager who creates reports that can be read in the comfort of deep carpets.

    Absence of middle managers is one reason why entrepreneurial businesses prosper and are also the reason why mature businesses wither.

    • says

      I understand and support the sentiment behind your comment, but I don’t think we can justify coming to that conclusion for every organization (especially given the above data). There are reasons that the organizations who specialize most in execution also seem to have many layers of accountability (I’m thinking of the military in particular). In addition, as an innovation junkie I love your reference to entrepreneurial ventures, but I’m not sure the analog works. Yes many mature businesses appear to wither, but many more startups burn up before every really getting any traction. Thanks for the comment.