The New Middle Management

If your position lies somewhere between the C-Suite and Team Leader, you don’t call yourself a “middle manager”, you have your title.

Low-level, mid-level and top-level managers are just categories so that researchers and academics can better structure their work.

On top of that, the term “middle manager” has negative connotations.

Let’s change that.

You may not like the style.
Not business-like enough.
Too bad.

If you’re too busy or too closed, we’re not for each other.

Here’s a test.
Do you buy a coffee and take it away?
Or do you buy and drink in?
In a proper cup.
With a real saucer
And the time it takes to people watch.

I really need to write more, so here goes…
Management killed the artisan. More correctly the industrial revolution killed the artisan when the skills we now call craft were once a trade. This is an important distinction and I’d like to be sure we are looking at the same thing.
There is an historical trend I can follow. Management killed the artisan but individualism demands craftsmanship as its outlet. So we have Taylorism as the predominant management style, particularly in a bureaucracy. Yet the people doing the work just want to do a good job, for the sake of a job well done. Because of the creativity stifling nature of a bureaucracy – I see this based on four decades of working in government, corporate, not-for-profit and defence organisations – people have hobbies, a means to a creative end.
We have change managers who are artists, managers who are runners, etc. People living two lives, and this is generally accepted. Except that we have only one life. The increased individualism assures us of that and, should you be interested, I urge you to read Steiner’s paper on individualism in philosophy. These are issues that need to be acknowledged. How does this affect you as a manager?
I suggest that you can think of your people as craftsmen (a gender-neutral term). If you do so, the question becomes, “how can I create an environment that allows craftsmen to flourish?”
I’m not going to pretend that I have done this, that would be foolish of me. In fact, the last job I had that came anywhere “management” would have been back in the late-eighties. But I will assert my thinking, reading, observation and reflection on the subject.
That’s what I have to offer.
Those of you who are experienced and reflective managers will be able to test these ideas against your reality and adapt them accordingly.
If our purpose is to create an environment that permits, nay, encourages flourishing, what does that make you? I would venture to say that we would be right in calling ourselves change makers.
Mid-level managers as change makers, creating environments that allow Craftsmanship to flourish.
That’s how I see things.
If you see that as a sensible aspirational goal the only thing we need to work out is how to do that. Fortunately, there is a substantial, though not huge, body of literature on all three subjects: Change Makers, Middle Managers, Craftsmanship.
The remainder of this essay will look at how we can draw these three threads together to help us achieve the above-mentioned aspiration.
Let’s start with middle managers.
Mid-level managers are perhaps the most maligned of all workers. In my reading and experience, I rarely see articles that treat them positively and there has been a long history of gutting organisations of the very people who hold the top and bottom together.

Craftsmen All
I am making two assumptions. The first is that you are human (by this I mean that you have within you the innate desire to do a job well, for its own sake). The second is that you work, and possibly live, in an environment that prevents you from manifesting that desire.
These two assumptions have underpinned my own working like for as long as I can remember. This essay is an attempt to understand how I have managed to prove these assumptions and move them into the realm of facts. Then counter them.
The idea of craftsmanship is a relatively recent one. Peter Korn, in his book, “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters”, shows that what we now consider craftsmanship was, before the Industrial Revolution, a trade. The IR killed the artisan and, through that, ushered in a way of thinking about work that continues to dog management practice today.
In essence, thinking and doing have been separated. Some point back to The Enlightenment for the root of this problem, I’m going to go back only as far as 1911 and the publication of “Scientific Management” by Frederick Taylor. In that, he turned into theory the practice of Ford and others and, it is fair to say, the mental model that is Scientific Management is consistent across all industries today.
Without getting too far into the details, Taylorism rests on the idea that Person A, a planner, has the authority to design the work for Person B, a worker. Most management and HR practices today reflect this mental model and this is the environment about which I made the earlier assumption. It limits the exercise of creative intellect to the planners. It is anathema to the notion of a free individual seeking to do the best job possible, for its own sake. At the close of the second decade of the 21st Century, it is time that Taylorism was buried. How?
This is one change that cannot be driven from the top or out of HR. For the simple reason that Taylorism depends upon a top existing and planners. No, this change needs to start in the middle and spread out from there. One image might be of a cancerous growth, spreading from its nucleus out invading and killing healthy cells. I’m not convinced the cells in question are healthy in an environment based on Taylorism so the image is moot.
A nicer image is of human warmth spreading out from the heart. Emotional Intelligence is but one description of this. Fritz …’s film, “Metropolis” demonstrated the need for this in 1929.
But it puts the onus on the person. The skills necessary for success published by the WEF. What they don’t do is point out that the organisational system and the structure into which these skills are to be introduced, prevents their practice.
So we’re going to address that issue because systems drive behaviours. It is pointless identifying desired behaviours if all your systems: technical, social and cultural, maintain the status quo.
In a conversation about this essay, a colleague asked me how this could be brought about. The word “subversive” came to mind. The system is too big and too strong to be met head-on. There needs to be another way, a more subtle, nuanced way and that way starts with mid-level managers.
You may be a mid-level manager who wants to move up the hierarchy or you may simply want to do the best job you can, where you are. This essay will not tell you how to reach the top. But in doing the best you can where you are, that might just happen. Whether you choose to accept the promotion is up to you.
Changing the environment in which your people work so their craftsmanship can flourish is a noble ambition.
John Kay’s “Obliquity” points out that most of what we want to achieve we do so obliquely rather than directly. But let’s be quite clear, we’re not trying to fix or undermine the system. We’re trying to replace it with something better. And the best way to do that is to continue to work within it (because it is so simplistic) and add to it until the Taylorist foundations disappear.