How to avoid middle manager limbo

Written by
Alex Davda

11 Jul 2017

11 Jul 2017 • by Alex Davda

Middle managers typically spin many plates, balancing the weight of delivering results with the unfortunate reality of often being unable to control how they get there. 

You find yourself frantically influencing and lobbying for support upwards, downwards and horizontally, which can leave you feeling like the filling in a sandwich, trying not to get squashed against a mass of multiple demands. 
Yet even with this challenging backdrop, middle managers are the engine room of the modern organisation. Relationships between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break an employee’s motivation, productivity and satisfaction. Although a core part of organisations, their needs are often overlooked in favour of senior leaders, potential employees or new graduates. Consequently those middle managers who are successful in moving up to the next rung of the career ladder tend to be the ones who are willing to speak up for themselves and for change.
Being pulled in several directions at once will obviously make you feel disorientated, but embracing your position more effectively is dependent upon regaining the control you have lost. I have long felt that the contribution of ‘the middle’ can be overlooked, and that managers of that level need to step back into the limelight and truly believe in their influence. As hard-working, competent individuals, they are likely to have respect and authority – however it may not be too visible.

Control your own speed

For middle managers, the first step is to control the speed at which they operate. If they move at the pace of those around them, they will constantly be chasing their tail and getting nowhere. A middle manager’s strategy should be to make their own pace and know there has to be some balance. If people continually push to fast-forward, middle managers need to be strong enough to fight that pressure. Useful questions for middle managers to ask themselves are: do I have the personal capacity to meet a request? Do I have the time to consider the best approach to take? Being reactive currently stretches middle managers to meet the expectations of those above and below them. Is being proactive an enabler to exceeding those expectations?
Taking back control as a manager not only involves making time to consider new approaches, but assertively managing the expectations of those around you. Middle managers can delegate successfully to their team by increasing clarity and communication, and planning priorities with the team at least a day in advance. Give people responsibility, enough time to do a good job, and be clear on the purpose of task.

Toughen up and be firm

However, their team is not the only thing that needs management. Meetings are important, but where there are other priorities, focus needs to remain. Meetings are important but declining meetings and condensing them to 10 minute catch-ups while grabbing a coffee can increase the amount of time middle managers have. Middle managers have to manage the expectations of their seniors and be clear about how much time they can expect their team to give them. In the nicest possible way, toughen up and be firm. 
Importantly, middle managers need to be willing to make tough decisions that are good for both themselves as an individual and their organisation, despite not always pleasing those around them. Two things can help middle managers here:


  1. Prioritising what is really important
  2. Identifying a senior mentor who can champion and coach based on their own experience of being “stuck in the middle”

The more middle managers squish a sandwich, the less likely they are to want to eat it. They may be wedged between demands from both sides, but there are things they can do to help make life easier: 

  • Make their team work to support them
  • Get into the habit of carving out a regular time slot each day to deal with emerging issues that would otherwise put them under pressure
  • Try out a new motto and “do less better” – the organisation will be thankful in the long run