The Middle Management Dilemma

Middle Management is where you slot between junior managers with little power and limited responsibility and upper management who have a lot of autonomy, accountability and influence. You’re at worst an effective manager and at best a manager who is destined for greater things. Yet, despite middle management being a critical and often lengthy portion of any managers career, try finding a book or write up on the subject. It’s either the basics of management for someone needing a crash course through their first foray into leadership or some advanced management theory delving into academic study and detailed micro analysis.

What if you are looking to get somewhere in your middle management career and want an alternative to trial and error? Where is the pragmatic information and the reality of what to expect?

Been there, got the T-Shirt

I’ve been there. And it was a frustrating experience. You’re expected to know what you are doing, but if you are really honest with yourself, you only have parts of the jigsaw. Results are what matters. That is how you are judged. And when you are first into the role, during the honeymoon period, you have a brief window to make some early mistakes without fear or lasting judgement.

Once the honeymoon period hastily passes results are then expected. You’ll get a full quarter of the honeymoon period if you are lucky. All that matters from this point onwards are results. Inevitably at some point you will encounter a challenging period. Any results you had will be replaced by pressure. Dependent on how long the results evade you, the more the pressure intensifies. If it’s a month, you’ll get somewhere between disappointment and a rollicking. If it’s a quarter add doubters and nonconstructive criticism. Any longer and it’s just a matter of time until a demotion or worse.

Why do results come easy to some and hard for others

The easy answer from an armchair critic is the unconstructive; a good manager or a bad manager. I’ve known managers that were pretty average get good results and I’ve known managers that were actually good managers, but whose results were up and down. There are a few denominators in the likelihood of good or bad results that do not directly concern the manager themselves.

Dilemma 1

You see in middle management you’re more often than not told who your staff are rather than having a say in it. Most leadership books have an eloquent way of saying a bad workman blames their tools, but if you have the wrong people onboard, you’re hampered before you begin.

A team is often described as a bus or vehicle. It’s on a journey somewhere and the leader is responsible for getting it there. But this bus isn’t your number 75 where passengers just sit there and wait. They’ll have important jobs. Some will make the engine stronger. Others will push it up hills or dig it out on boggy ground. There will be those who map read or can use the complicated sat nav. Some will keep the heads up of those who cannot bear to continue on this epic journey anymore. The bus driver needs help to get where they are going. If everyone does their job properly and clubs together when the journey gets tough, you’ll get to your destination. But if they don’t, you’ll be putting on the hazard lights and pulling over before seeing your competition overtake you.

The first dilemma that most middle managers face is that they have limited power to decide who sits on their bus with them and also who they move off. A CEO can make those calls. A junior manager doesn’t have to worry about this yet. The middle manager has to play the cards they are dealt.

Favouritism and Politics

Why is it some people always get places when you know they either don’t deserve it or simply aren’t good enough? How comes no company admits that they have political problems when those denying it are often the worst offenders? If you’re new to middle management and haven’t encountered this, you will. To describe it as frustrating is an understatement. It’s excruciating.

If you are getting results and doing all the right things and yet see other people getting the praise, recognition and opportunities whilst you are being overlooked it can be arduous. Fair is fair if they have better results despite you maybe not feeling quite so diplomatic about it at the time. But when they’re getting plain average or even questionable results when you’ve “smashed it out the park”, it is utterly infuriating.

Dilemma 2

Imagine having a team which needed a lot of work, where you haven’t got the best people and yet you still manage to get the best out of them delivering consistent and impressive results. But the Senior Managers favourite gets treated differently. When the company discovers that amazing talent and they need to make a fair and unbiased decision as to what team they join somehow it isn’t yours. No matter what you do results wise you are overlooked. But if you challenge your boss on it, you know you’ll do yourself no favours. You’ll probably challenge them once and you’ll soon get the message that it’s not in your best interests to question your boss’s decisions. As a middle manager, sometimes you can’t fight your own corner if you want your career to have any chance of going anywhere. More often that not, it’s sit down, shut up and take it.

Yes Men and Yes Women

I have been fortunate in that I have worked for some great leaders. Real leaders. People who lead by principles. You know those who wouldn’t ask you to do anything they wouldn’t do. Where any decision made was made with the best interests of the business and it was made clear that that was it from the off. And when you craved backing, support or guidance when you needed it, they’d go out of their way because they cared. For people like that, myself and many others worked harder than we should have and pushed ourselves more than we thought we could have. We didn’t want to let them down. It mattered. You felt you were all in this together. I’ve had three managers that I have been fortunate to work for like that.

Sadly, all of them were not recognised by their businesses. They got overlooked. Under their stewardship records were broken, incredible performances were witnessed, and consistency was delivered. Yet, those who got places in those businesses made it through an entirely different tactic. Some call it boot licking and others call it brown nosing. Whatever you want to call it they made it their mission to massage the ego’s of anyone who had the power to progress their careers. In all honesty some of them were pretty good at their jobs. But most were just a bit better than average.

Dilemma 3

As a middle manager if you want to get anywhere, no matter what rubbish a company spouts about “no politics here” and “we are different”, if you brown nose your bosses ego’s and make it your mission to make them like you, you’ll go places.

To this day I hate that this is the reality in most companies. Yes, you need results, but brown nosing gets you further and faster. Forget all of the nonsense you read on LinkedIn and business books. They’ll only help at junior and senior management levels. If you’re in middle management, start kissing arse if you want to get anywhere.

But I find this sad. Because you have great companies that are going out of business and the public wonder how on earth such large and established businesses have gotten themselves into such a mess. It’s simple. The company promoted boot lickers over results driven leaders. All of the good people that made the company great will eventually leave and you’re left with people making decisions for their own career interests and not that of the companies.

Working to someone else’s vision

I am an obsessive reader of business and leadership literature. Vision in a company is a wonderful thing. When I hear the word Vision, I think of Steve Jobs seeing that the Macintosh would take computing out of the workplace and into every home making computing accessible to all. I see Jobs dreaming of people in white headphones with 1000 songs in their pocket. When I think of Vision, I think of people like Steve Jobs dreaming up how to change the world.

You can dream that at a junior management level. It can become partial reality at senior management level as you’ll have the power to make some of those decisions. But at middle management level in the nicest way, you cannot change squat. Your vision is about hitting targets for the quarter. It’s about how to motivate a team of people containing those you know aren’t right and others who don’t even want to be there. It’s less about motivation and more about manipulation. You know you can’t offer them much and you can’t change anything for them. But it’s your job and neck on the line if you don’t get results out of them.

Dilemma 4

If you want to be a good manager and take pride in doing the job well it is incredibly frustrating when you are working within the confines of someone else’s vision. And it is especially frustrating if that vision isn’t something you agree with. Yet you’ll hear the term “buy in”. That’s code for you being required to agree with or “be onboard” with what is often a flawed vision. You can find yourself inadvertently betraying the trust of people who work for you in order to get results and kiss the backsides of your bosses. Short term you’ll get a pat on the back and it can earn you a promotion. But long term your staff will hate you, they’ll lose faith in the company and ultimately, you’re responsible for shafting people for your own benefit. But that is the system in most firms.

On programs like The Apprentice you’ll hear ruthless and cut-throat lines of doing people over to get ahead. The stupidity is that this is promoted as a good business mentality. How? It causes long term damage and distrust between workers and management and it promotes selfishness and individuality. It is not good business practice at all, but if you’re working within someone else’s vision who’s got there by being a boot licker, you’ll only get places by using the same tactics. Kiss your bosses’ backsides and manipulate and exploit your staff to your own benefit. It’s that simple.

Pay attention to what you see and not what you hear

You will be told many things in your career, but just because you are told something it doesn’t make it true. It is only what you see that becomes truth. I’m amazed at how marketing has become so powerful. It tells you things. But just because I hear something, I generally don’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes. Especially not anything to do with marketing. However, I am shocked that people seem to blindly believe marketing and in particular, Employer Marketing.

Any company that promotes a “no politics” culture has cultural and political problems. Why say it otherwise? Companies that say they are different aren’t that different from others when you see it for yourself. Firms that talk about putting their people first, are stating something that should be obvious. A company is a group of people. Remember the bus from earlier. Why say it? On the odd occasion it may be genuine, but trust me, it’s rare.

Dilemma 5

The problem is that as a middle manager you cannot change your environment or your company culture. If it has political problems, you will have to navigate them and take accountability for them when they bite you in the backside. Working in a company that is promoting nonsense to attract people when the reality of the company bears little to no relevance to their employer marketing is rife. Instead of becoming a great employer who retains people well, they end up selling lies and having to keep replacing those who’ve seen the truth.

However, as a middle manager if you lose people who’ve discovered the truth it becomes your fault for losing them. “You should have managed them better”. This is code for you should have manipulated them better. If you want to be a good manager, you’d need to be honest with your staff. How can you afford to be honest with your staff if the truth will make them leave? You’d need to manipulate your staff to retain them if you work for a firm like this. Unfortunately, and nobody wants to admit it, most companies are like this to varying degrees.

Sum Up

Middle Management is the hidden management role that nobody wants to write about. Yet it’s the role which you’ll probably spend most of your managerial career in. It’s the job where you will learn the most. But it can at times by unglamorous, emotionally draining, counter-intuitive, frustrating and soul destroying.

But if you want to be a leader, you’ll need to face it. It’s a rite of passage. If you want to get to the top wherever, sell out, manipulate, kiss arse and do whatever it takes to get results. But it you want to genuinely be the best, want to enjoy the job and you dream of changing the world don’t listen, but look for those rare gem companies who share your vision.

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