Asking the wrong questions about middle management

Andrew Hill, FT’s management editor, once again challenges assumptions about where true value in a company really lies. This time he argues that those who ‘delayer’ management levels do so at their peril.

May 21, 2018
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Following recent announcements from Elon Musk that ‘we are flattening the management structure,’ and BT that it was cutting 13,000 mainly middle management and back office jobs, Hill cautions leaders about the efficacy of flattening the management structure.

Those who reduce the links in the chain of command (or even try to abolish middle managers altogether) often just add extra workload to those who survive the cull, and encourages unnecessary tinkering by the CEO into his or her direct reports. Indeed, when GE’s former CEO Jack Welch took on 18 direct reports—countering the prevailing convention that these should be limited to around 7—he was in effect centralising power, according to one view.

Hill adds: ‘Leaders who fixate on structure may neglect more important factors, such as culture, competence, collaboration and customer satisfaction’. He refers to Stephen Denning’s The Age of Agile, arguing how ‘large organisations such as Microsoft or Spotify prosper not through hierarchy but by encouraging network connections and ensuring that “anyone can talk to anyone.’

The FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance has also asked whether middle management is undervalued and misunderstood. Engagement, productivity, and institutional memory and more all depend to some degree on empowering and preserving the integrity of the middle manager. Much of the problem comes down to a misunderstanding about his or her distinctive role.

As David Bolchover writes, there is a vital difference between what the manager does and what the leader does. The latter sees their role in inspiring others and influence a working culture through what they say and do. It seldom involves direct contact with the team. On the other hand, ‘management involves dealing with other people’s messy realities, finding out what makes them tick and solving personal and workplace problems.’ Plenty of research suggests that company performance and engagement is determined more at this level than any other in organisation; senior leaders might therefore be less hasty when considering whether to discard it.

Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.