A New Day for Middle Managers

Association leaders have an opportunity to support an essential but often-beleaguered group of employees, both as staffers and potential members.

The middle isn’t so middle-of-the-road anymore. 

Since the pandemic, there’s been a lot of conversation about the changing roles of middle managers—specifically, how put-upon they’ve been. Since the pandemic, they’ve had to referee back-to-office policies, implement new HR initiatives, and, often, be the Bad Cop around decisions from the top. That stress has led to a lot of talk about how middle managers were among the first to bolt during the Great Resignation. But as the dust settles in the post-pandemic era, some research suggests that middle managers are settling into their roles in new ways. For association execs, that represents both a leadership opportunity and a market opportunity.

First, here’s what the shifting looks like: According to new research from Harvard Business School professor Letian Zhang, middle manager positions have increasingly emphasized collaboration and coaching over supervision. According to an HBR article on Zhang’s research, “managerial job postings that required collaborative skills and experience increased by three times between 2007 and 2021. By contrast, job postings that included supervisory capabilities decreased by 23 percent.”

That means the middle has to be better adapted to soft skills now. “As a manager, your role is to understand the people that you’re managing—hence the need for good social skills,” Zhang says.

Managerial job postings that required collaborative skills and experience increased by three times between 2007 and 2021.

Another way of putting it is that the formerly anonymous middle-manager is now a cultural ambassador for an organization. That’s a point Insead business professor Spencer Harrison made in a recent piece at the MIT Sloan Management Review: In the article “Building Culture From the Middle Out,” he points out that strong middle managers not only internalize the big-picture cultural values of an organization, but observe how those values play out in day-to-day scenarios. 

“Most successful midlevel leaders find ways to link the ‘big-C’ culture of their organization—its official set of values—with the ‘small-c’ culture that plays out in the narrower and vibrant daily patterns of interaction,” Harrison writes.

For association executives, there are two takeaways from that change. One has to do with what’s happening within their own staffs—those middle supervisory roles may have a new set of skills and expectations that should be acknowledged and supported. Middle managers are problem-solvers, and if they have the skills to do their job well, it makes recruitment and retention easier for you. 

The more dynamic role that middle managers now play might also offer a window of opportunity for your association’s membership. Many associations target top leaders at organizations to become members, figuring that rank-and-file middle managers aren’t as engaged in the industry. But if middle managers are more invested in the culture of their companies, the industry may now mean more to them as well—which is where associations can reach out to provide the education and sense of belonging that help them do their jobs better. 

Harrison’s research suggests that middle managers aren’t just reporting out what the top leaders are dictating—they’re enriching their organizational cultures. Middle managers got through the stresses of the pandemic in part by being empowered to lead in their own ways. Associations can do a lot to make sure they can continue to do that quietly influential and empowering job well. 

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