How middle managers can manage less and lead more

Being a middle manager is difficult and it’s getting more so. Decades ago, middle managers were just there to control and coordinate the work of others. But as technology can now lend a hand with this – improving productivity and online coordination and monitoring, there’s pressure on middle managers to perform a huge number of roles.

I’m currently interviewing middle managers as part of the research for a book designed to help middle managers excel in their role. It’s become apparent that they are expected to do a great deal. As a bare minimum, to be seen to be successful managers, they need to organise projects and staff them, control and problem solve, and plan and budget. But it’s no longer just these management tasks they are expected to do. They are expected to be inspirational and forward-looking leaders, too. They must motivate people, set direction, create change and align people. No wonder they report being both tired, and conflicted, in terms of what is expected of them by their own managers, their teams, and their peers.

One interviewee, who appears to be a successful middle manager, said this:

“But for me, it’s exactly that you’re between two very demanding customers… so you’re sort of constantly dealing with the minutia, but also the long-term vision and that’s the hard thing to juggle.” Director of Lab Operations, Analytical Chemistry Laboratory, UK

It is often the leadership component of the role that excites managers and drives their engagement. It is also what organisations often seek, and for good reason. For example, having good middle leaders has been shown to be critical for successful organisational change and innovation. On the reverse, too much admin time leaves middle managers feeling drained and depressed and being less of an asset to their firm. So there are very good reasons to embrace the leadership element of a middle management role.

But if you are a middle manager, how can you find the time to embrace the leadership element of your role? There is much you can do.

1. Take a coaching approach with your juniors

Firstly, you should reduce the amount of time you’re spending on problem-solving that your team could be doing for themselves. This is a good example of managing when you should be leading. You can do this by adopting a coaching approach which in itself is more leaderly and incorporated into many models of leadership excellence. Taking a coaching approach can be seen as moving away from telling your team what to do and towards coaching them. By stepping back and encouraging them to take the lead in their own work, you can get the best out of them, reduce the drain on your time, and demonstrate excellent leadership. However, you should focus on using this technique on team members who have the motivation to want to succeed: using it with disengaged staff members can backfire. You can read more about taking the coaching approach to leadership here.

2. Be an exceptional delegator

You need to create time in your schedule to be able to engage with leadership tasks. The above will help a little, but you may find you need to go back to Management 101. Remember the ancient art of delegation? To free up time, you need to make sure that you are delegating all that you can.

If you are an experienced delegator, you will have the confidence to pass meaningful tasks on to your team to complete. This frees up your time and increases your team’s sense of motivation. You’re thus managing less, and also leading more. Look for tasks that are teachable, time-consuming, and time-sensitive. These will free up space for you, but make sure that your team are feeling as though you’re passing on areas that make a meaningful difference to the business. While you’re at it, you could do some time management hygiene, by checking that you’re following the rules set by the simple but effective Eisenhower Matrix:

3. Take time for strategy

If you want to be a leader, it’s important that you take time to engage with organisational strategy. That begins with making sure that you and your team are aligned with it so that your bosses (the senior leaders) are confident you’re acting in accordance with their plans and wishes. It also means that, as you become more comfortable with your role, you will start to identify where things need to change. Transitioning to leadership means becoming comfortable with having a role in designing and altering the architecture of the organisation: its strategy, structure and processes. Interviewees talk about the challenging task this can be for them as middle managers, but how stepping up to this task may ultimately be the secret to praise, promotion and pride in what they do. Becoming a change master has a number of components, including being comfortable with change, having clarity of direction, and a participative management style. Kanter carried out research on this back in 1982, but the key principles are still valid: if you want to be a good middle manager, you have to be comfortable engaging with and driving change – not just being the victim of it.