Learming Hub

Middle managers: implementing strategy and leading change

They are the Mintzberg’s ‘middle line’, these men and women we rely upon to implement strategy and lead change.  They have the experience, ideas, networks (formal and informal) and continuity to translate a vision into action, to execute complex interdependent actions….but why do many middle managers become obstructive instead of conducive?

Firstly, they are often excluded from the strategic process until quite late and then their role is making the impossible, (or perhaps just improbable) a reality.  In addition, they are uncertain about the future, worried about the changes required, and finally, often don’t have the authority to take the required decisions and actions.

All this at a time when middle management jobs are less secure, more pressured and challenging.

Ricky Gervais (left) pictured as put upon middle manager David Brent, with MacKenzie Crook as Gareth Keenan in the BBC sitcom

The middle manager is a much maligned character, an obstacle to change, subject to ridicule (The Office TV show and Dilbert cartoons), promoted to the level of incompetence (the Peter Principle) and may feel, set up to fail. Recent engagement scores (of more than 300,000 employees by Zenger & Folkman, 2014) indicate large numbers of middle managers are unhappy, overworked, and ‘piggy in the middle’.

They are demoralised, confused, cynical and disconnected from their employers, lacking certainty about their future or their career prospects.  Of course these feelings are not universal, but are true for the western Europe, the US, and more recently even in the stronghold of the ‘salaryman’– Japan.

This may be because middle managers are viewed as expensive,  privileged and surplus to requirements, they have been relentlessly downsized, and many feel like corporate drudges in career dead ends. Technology and new organisational forms demand greater flexibility and have diluted their traditional monitoring and communication roles; they may even be obsolete, as new management models threaten jobs and careers.

In spite of this, now there are more and wealthier middle managers in organisations than a decade ago, some who are ‘star performers’ but most of whom are productive, autonomous, key players in successful strategy implementation and firm performance.

So how do we re-engage and mobilise more of these key contributors?

Its back to basics! The classic tenets of leadership apply here:

  • Involve them early and respect their contribution: they understand the organisation, its capabilities and capacities and can help craft a more robust plan
  • Stop selling the strategy or change and listen to their questions and objections: challenge and support them to design solutions rather than re-stating why and what must be done
  • Delegate whole, meaningful parts of strategy or change projects with the autonomy, budgets and decision making authority to deliver
  • And use the implementation problems which will surely arise as opportunities to coach.….they can learn to ‘come with solutions’ if you guide their thinking by asking thought provoking and challenging questions.


In short, at least some of these middle managers will be successors for future senior roles and implementing challenging strategies and change projects provides an ideal training ground for those future roles.


olive f

Olive Fives is an experienced, innovative and successful organisational development consultant .

She has experience in a wide variety of public, private and third sector organisations in Ireland, Europe and India.

Olive teaches Human Resources on the IMI Mini MBA


For more see:

GRATTON, L. 2011. Column: The End of the Middle Manager. Harvard Business Review, January-February.

Professor David Buchanan  (Cranfield)  highlights the key role of middle managers in change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJLIlKkTJyE

ZENGER, J. & FOLKMAN, J. November 24th 2014 2014. Why Middle Managers are So Unhappy. Managing People [Online]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2014/11/why-middle-managers-are-so-unhappy



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