12 April 2024

Helping the business world’s squeezed middle

Executive Leadership
| The European | Gosia Ciesielska

Trying to balance leader and employee expectations can make middle management feel like the filling in a corporate sandwich – but there are ways to help, says Gosia Ciesielska of Sheffield Business School

From small team leaders to senior leaders falling just below top executives, middle managers make up a very large group in the workforce. They are a very diverse group in terms of their backgrounds, experience and functional areas, but their goal is essentially the same – managing the often-contrasting expectations of their employees with those of the organisation’s senior leaders.

If the workplace were a sandwich, middle management would be the filling. They need to inspire and motivate their employees, who expect purpose in their work, flexibility and career opportunities. On the other side, they have performance pressure from senior leadership. Managers are left in the uncomfortable position of being the middleman, but also a position that is crucial to ensure organisational survival and development.

What challenges do middle managers face?

Often referred to as a “squeezed middle” or “sandwiched”, middle managers are squashed in between operations and strategic overview, both in their daily decision-making and hierarchically. To balance these often-competing priorities, they have to be able to work effectively with both shopfloor staff and top executives. Another added element over the past few years is the introduction of remote and hybrid work, which adds another layer of difficulty to an already complex situation.

One of the most important elements of the role of a middle manager is translating strategic issues and operational constraints up and down that hierarchy. Most large organisations would struggle to survive without middle management. They are the backbone of the organisation, the glue that holds companies together. Not just intermediaries, middle management connects, translates, and makes implementing change possible, getting pulled in many different directions or by different agendas.

However, middle managers’ valuable contributions often go unnoticed by senior executives. And also, balancing competing priorities can sometimes mean middle management is given the undeserved reputation of being resistant to change. This view stems from the fact that middle managers often take on the role of an “umbrella carrier”. They shield their teams from unrealistic, or damaging initiatives being pushed down into the organisation from the senior leadership. This is to allow the junior-level roles to continue to do good work, and not be negatively influenced by unreasonable senior-level initiatives. Moreover, research shows that in fact middle managers play a crucial role in bringing and implementing successful organisational change. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, middle managers have one of the highest risks of burnout, more so than executives or non-managers. In fact, in a recent Microsoft study of managers from 11 countries, more than half (53%) felt they were burnt out. They are also the least likely to say they have a good work-life balance, according to a recent study by Vitality. So, what can organisations do about the managerial sandwich to ensure this crucial part of the workforce is not chewed up along the way. 

Recognise the role of middle managers

The first thing organisations should do is acknowledge and appreciate the full extent of the role that middle management plays in day-to-day business, as well as in implementing change. Some studies have shown that the 80:20 role of successful change applies to these middle managers, in which 80% of change initiatives proposed by middle managers have a good chance of success. In comparison, on average, only 20% of initiatives proposed by top executives are successful.

By recognising the challenges middle managers face and the value of the ideas they bring to the organisation, decision-makers can give these ideas more consideration when adopting change. 

Offer opportunities for professional development

Most individuals are offered their managerial positions because they are popular, good at their job and able to take charge. Because of this, around 82% of managers are accidental, according to a recent report from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). These individuals have had no formal management training at all, making them ill-equipped to handle the complex challenges that frequently come their way. At senior level, this figure is not much lower, sitting at a shocking 48%. 

What this means in practice is that often these individuals do not possess the skills and tools that help them manage their staff. Unsurprising then, only a quarter of workers (27%) describe their manager as “highly effective”. This has led to approximately one in three workers leaving, the research found, due to poor motivation and low job satisfaction.

Offering in-house training opportunities for managers is one way of combatting this. However, external training might be even more beneficial. External training will allow individuals to better understand their organisation’s place in the industry and the wider economic perspective, as well as network with fellow middle managers. Of course, there are many options available for external training, but business apprenticeship courses or even some MBA offerings might be a winning choice here. These, on top of managing people skills, will allow middle managers to better understand the full portfolio and functional area of the business. 

Another option could be short CPD courses (continuing professional development) allowing for quick insight into specific people’s management tools and approaches, for example on restorative practices, authentic and responsible leadership or cross-cultural management.

Encourage upward influence 

Offering opportunities for professional development is useful to some extent, but this support should not only focus on how to influence subordinates. Middle managers must also learn how to exercise upward influence. This can be achieved through dedicated coaching and mentoring schemes. Coaching will support the middle manager in understanding their career and professional goals and help them in planning and monitoring progress. For the best coaching results, organisations should consider hiring independent professional coaches, as this relationship will work better outside the hierarchical interconnections and outside company politics.

Often for the best coaching result organisations should consider hiring independent professional coaches, as this relationship will allow for more open discussion outside the hierarchical interconnections and company politics. 

Mentoring on the other hand, delivered in-house, will support them in a deeper understanding of the professional, industry and organisational context and how this influences success. I believe that reciprocal mentoring would often be the best intervention here. Reciprocal mentoring allows for mutual learning and encourages partnership. It is not only to support the middle manager, but also help top executives to understand the lower levels of organisations, develop empathy and a culture of trust which propagates a sense of psychological safety.

What does a good, successful middle manager look like?  

Given the challenges facing them, middle managers have to possess certain skills to be successful in their roles. To be effective as a middle manager, they must be a boundary spanner – meaning they understand the bottom and top lines and are able to communicate well across organisational boundaries. They must fully understand the constraints from both sides and the need for growth. 

However, managers should not have to face these challenges alone. Organisations should put in place steps to reduce the pressure on middle managers, offering extensive support and training to help them build the skills needed for their roles. By following the steps outlined above, organisations can create a more engaged, productive workforce. 

About the Author

Gosia Ciesielska is a Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University. Her work revolves around themes linked to sustainable and fair managerial practices, supporting of EDI agenda, and coaching practice.

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