Define Potential Blog

Middle managers – the lost generation?

24 November 2017

Middle managers are key to an organisation’s performance.  They are the conduit between the senior executive and the organisation’s strategic directions, and the front-line staff, hard-working teams of the public service.  And they most likely got to middle management by being good at the core business of the area – policy development, program management, service delivery, corporate services etc.   

Once promoted however, middle managers despair about high workloads, poor communication, confusing strategic influences and the constant pressure and ambiguity of ‘stepping up’.  Suddenly they are responsible for a whole lot of things that are new to them – managing staff, budgets, corporate reporting.  Within this maelstrom of new challenges, middle managers might find themselves feeling a little lost. 

Studies into middle management show that organisational success is reduced with weak middle management, which attests to the important role that these people play.  We also know that of all levels of management, the middle manager often struggles the most. 

Most studies tell us what managers should be doing and why.  Out of this myriad of studies, one stands out and brings a new perspective.  It’s about the middle manager’s professional identity.  

It’s not unusual for senior officers to set the boundaries of responsibility and accountability; to have them empower, enable and offer support.  Middle managers often look to senior managers for support and clarification and yet the uncertainty around the middle management role remains.  Why is this so? 

This study suggests we need to look harder at the middle manager’s self-identity.  Middle managers are encouraged to support each other to develop a confident management identity and present this in the workplace.  They suggest that this will result in a new reality for middle managers.  

Consider the journey into middle management.  People join organisations at a young age or in a junior level.  The professional identity grows from there. People transform into a professional in the workplace.  The professional identity sets in. 

At the point of promotion to middle management, managers often hold on to their original professional identity.  They remain engineers, accountants, lawyers, computer programmers or administrators despite becoming managers.   

A clear management identity allows managers to assert themselves with colleagues, staff and senior managers. It enables legitimacy, purpose and status in the organisation and in society.  It offers boundaries for responsibility and accountability and it gives the middle management population certainty. It ensures stability, security and confidence. It creates a social and organisational reality that frames the sense of who middle managers are.  

Identities are developed through social interactions; through communication and interactions with others. The conversations about middle management determine the reality of middle management.   

Are middle managers doing themselves an injustice by speaking of their frustrations and challenges?  Are they seen in a negative light and is this negativity generating an identity of insecurity? Are the challenges of middle management self-perpetuating?  

As a middle manager, develop a positive management vision and identity.  Do this in conversation with other middle managers.  Present thoughts and join discussions with positive language.  Encourage your peers to do the same.  Build the identity you want through positive interactions and language.  

Remember that identities are developed through communication and interpersonal relations.  How you present as a middle manager is how you are perceived.  What you say becomes what you are.  Speak only of frustrations and challenges and your reality will be set in negativity.  

Speak of wins, of success, of achievement and of middle management pride and build a profession of middle managers that is proud of their identity and of their role in organisational success.  

Dr Samantha Johnson
UNSW Canberra
Public Service Research Group
School of Business 


Ahearne, M., Lam, S.K. & Kraus, F. (2014) Performance Impact of Middle Managers’ Adaptive Strategy Implementation: The Role of Social Capital. Strategic Management Journal, 35, 60-87.

Currie, G. & Procotor, S. (2005) The Antecedents of Middle Managers’ Strategic Contributions: The case of a professional bureaucracy.  Journal of Management Studies, 42(7), 0022-2380.

Thomas, R. & Linstead, A. (2002) Losing the Plot? Middle Manages and Identity. Organization, 9(1), 71-93.

Wooldridge, B. & Floyd, S.W., (1990) The Strategy Process, Middle Management Involvement and Organisational Performance. Strategic Management Journal, 11, 231-241. 

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