Middle Managers, Extinct or Heros in an Adaptive, Agile and AI world by Karen Walker

Middle Management roles, an evolution not an extinction

Much has been written about current middle management roles becoming increasingly irrelevant, ANZ's Digital Chief Maile Carnegie a few months ago famously referring to the 'frozen middle' who "have graduated from doing to managing and basically bossing other people around and shuffling Powerpoints", who also "resist change like death." Carnegie highlighting the importance of distributed leadership and delegation replacing last century's command and control models of leadership.

Tim Kastelle in his much-quoted article Hierarchy Is Overrated provides examples of successful, long-established organisations across numerous sectors with flat, non-hierarchical structures, asking "why can't everyone be a chief?" Positioning resistance to flat structures as not founded on any rational thinking, rather many people believing democracy doesn't work in the workplace, hierarchies being both essential and normal, also difficult to change.

In The End of the Middle Manager the current Technology Revolution is seen as bringing ways of working full circle to those prior to the Industrial Revolution, when people were expert teams of self-managing craftsmen.

The article pointing out in the days of master craftsmen when a general manager role was unnecessary, coaching by skilled masters was vital. A management style purported to sit more comfortably with Gen Y workers than task management.

In Agile ways of working the classic middle management responsibilities of resource allocation, task management, dealing with problems and also being the subject matter expert are becoming irrelevant, with the creation of Agile Coaches, Product Owners and multi-skilled teams. Predictions abound of how technology, artificial intelligence and robotics will make many roles redundant, including those with responsibilities for monitoring operational performance, assessments, analysis, knowledge sharing and networking of employees across the enterprise. Is it a matter of when middle managers become extinct, rather than if?

In the age of rapid changes and ambiguity, many see the evolution of middle management roles as critical for organisations to not only survive but thrive.

How Automation Will Rescue Middle Management views automation as liberating human managers from mundane and routine tasks, to use capabilities that AI can't replace. Emotional intelligence to engage and support employees through today's relentless change, and 'set employees free to create, innovate and inspire one another.'

Why Being a Middle Manager is So Exhausting highlights how stressful playing two incompatible roles can be for middle managers in traditional hierarchical structures, switching from being a subordinate and showing deference to senior leaders, then back to being assertive and directive with employees.This vertical task switching and often being the meat in the sandwich between competing interests, are two of many factors contributing to higher rates of depression and anxiety for people in middle management roles than those in senior leadership and frontline positions.

Research by Google and the Boston Consulting Group both concluded that middle managers are a "neglected but critical group", positively impacting organisational performance and revenue if placed within cultures and structures that aid rather than hinders their effectiveness.

Middle management roles which aren't micromanaged, have greater strategic responsibility and are in an egalitarian organisation, benefits the role-holder and the organisation.

An Agile workplace is more egalitarian and facilitates greater strategic responsibilities, but even more critical in today's rapidly changing workforce is how they provide middle managers with more time to invest in people and talent development. Where learning from each other is a reciprocal and mutually rewarding interaction between managers and their teams.

As Carnegie highlighted distributed leadership is key, Why Managers Still Matter noting "if top management holds too much decision-making authority, it is difficult to harness employee-specific knowledge and motivate employees to make good decisions."

As the role of middle managers evolves so must their capabilities, requiring new skills to manage adaptive performance.

In There Are Two Types of Performance - but Most Organizations Only Focus on One adaptive performance is described as how organisations can be successful in today's age of accelerated, complex and unpredictable change, through "creativity, problem-solving, grit, innovation, and citizenship." Managing tactical performance is ensuring adherence to strategies and plans, historically the main focus of middle managers, whilst adaptive performance is about knowing when it is better to change tack.

To be today's middle management 'hero' requires balancing the management of tactical and adaptive performance, and along the way strengthening your own capability and that of your team, to adapt to new ways of thinking and working.

Other leadership articles

Coexistence of Command, Control and Agile Leaders, bad for employees and businessWhen Narcissist Leaders silence organisations, the damage can be lethal, and Employee Silence, an Innovation Killer


This was originally posted on Karen Walker's Linkedin.


Karen Walker is an Advisor, Expert and Operative in Strategy Execution, the series of decisions and actions undertaken to turn strategic visions of organisations into reality. An evolving journey of understanding possibilities and using situational awareness to adapt tactics and goals to realise maximum value. 

A specialist in the casino and gaming industry, with extensive experience in the implementation of new and innovative practices and the establishment of greenfield operations, Karen’s career spans senior operational management and leadership, program director, project and change management, and business transformation lead roles, across a number of sectors.