Middle managers are the much-maligned workhorses of corporate America. Squeezed between the demands of the top brass and the realities of front-line employees, middle managers face blame from both camps when things go wrong and win little praise when a policy works out. And when times are tough, middle managers are often the first to go. Still, research shows companies often owe many more of their successes to middle managers than top execs.
Things, we can conclude, have never been easy for the beleaguered middle manager, but are they soon to get a lot worse? That's the conclusion of a column earlier this year in the HBR written by London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, author of The Shift. In it she predicts that the role of middle manager is actually going extinct. Why? Gratton offers two main reasons.
One is the usual, go-to explanation for many of the changes roiling the world of work -- technology. She writes:
Now technology itself has become the great general manager. It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feed back, even create reports and presentations. Moreover, skilled teams are increasingly self-managed. That leaves people with general management skills in a very vulnerable position.The argument that technology is taking away many mid-level jobs is one you've probably heard before, but the other reason for the decline of the middle manager named by Gratton may surprise you more. The culprit? Gen Y. Apparently, the generation entering the work force now sees little need for this layer of management. According to Gratton,
As my research makes clear, Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect. Someone, in other words, who is a master--not a general manager.This meshes with recent research on the preferences of Gen Y workers by PwC. One survey participant quoted in the final report said, for example, that "hierarchies have to disappear. Generation Y expects to work in communities of mutual interest and passion -- not structured hierarchies." Young people, conclude the experts, value mentoring in well defined skills but see little value in a person who is charged with simply looking over their shoulders.
Gratton concludes that middle managers looking to save themselves from this sinking ship should invest in "acquiring and building knowledge or competencies that are valuable and rare." Being a generalist in a world of fast-improving technology is planned obsolesce. Instead, look to become a skilled craftsman (or woman) in one aspect of office life.
Are you as pessimistic as Gratton about the future of the middle manager?
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