Middle Managers on a Knife-edge

A recent study illustrates how heads of department and team leaders find themselves caught between a rock and hard place, facing dual pressure from senior management and their former working environment.
Marxist thinking emerged during a time of rapid industrialisation marked by a sharp increase in the number of hires by factories. As a result, once-independent peasants and craftsmen morphed into interchangeable proletarians who relied upon production means that were no longer under their control. Almost 200 years later, at a time where robotisation, artificial intelligence and “uberisation” are having a profound effect on the way we work, isn’t this kind of thinking also relevant when examining the situation of salaried employees?


According to Marx, alienation is a consequence of the commodification of labour power and workers’ loss of control over the means and products of production. This way of organising work represents a departure from more traditional and more genuinely human methods where work is performed out of a desire for creativity, self-expression and aesthetic motivation, rather than the mere need to earn a living. Alienation renders workers a passive object of history. The concept of emancipation, on the other hand, relates to material, intellectual and psychological liberation from such domineering conditions.
These concepts received a brutal wake-up call in the form of the 2008 financial crisis, thereby enabling us to clarify certain complex situations. In particular, they have served as a guide for better understanding the relatively under-investigated activities of middle managers, those thousands and thousands of department heads and team leaders who currently comprise around 20% of all employees. We decided to spend an entire year fully integrated within a company in order to follow those same managers on a daily basis, hour after hour, as part of an anthropological study (“Working at the Boundaries: Middle Managerial Work as a Source of Emancipation and Alienation”, by Ricardo Azambuja and Gazi Islam, which is due to appear in the Human Relations journal).
Cut adrift between senior management and lower-ranked employees, middle managers find themselves wavering between the desire to obtain a certain independence due to their status linked to their role as both leader and coordinator, and the perception that they are also being controlled, even manipulated or objectified by their former colleagues who have gone on to become members of their department or team.

Fresh opportunities

The theory of alienation is customarily used to explain workers’ loss of autonomy – for instance, through de-skilling in industrial settings. However, in the case of the middle manager, alienation is a consequence of a wide array of conflicting and ambivalent requests that can even result in them losing their sense of direction altogether. The middle manager has to handle emergencies, weigh up the various requests with which they are faced, and recurrently switch from one issue to another. No-one is expecting them to be an absolute expert in a given area, but rather to manage problems on a day-to-day basis. It comes as no surprise that many of them feel they no longer have a specialist profession as such.
Their promotion to middle manager status distances them from the social and professional group to which they initially belonged. They have the feeling of aloofness, of juggling an ongoing tug-of-war between diverse demands, split from their former colleagues to whom they are now hierarchically superior, yet without being fully integrated into the upper echelons of organisations. Their working life is a lonely one!
However, the interfacing role that middle managers have to assume also provides fresh opportunities. The fact that they have to mediate and translate strategic directives from above whilst remaining in constant touch with the complicated nitty-gritty of the workplace, and its various operational constraints, affords them a certain room for manoeuvre that could be considered liberating. The “porous” position which they occupy means that they have to carry out a wide range of tasks that are not easy to limit or define, meaning that they can operate freely. This opportunity enables them to reflect and deploy skills in order to work their way through a multi-levelled working world, communicating with various members of the company, all with distinct and often diverging interests and agendas.

Conflicting interests

What results from this bivalence in times of crisis? The current SNCF train strike provides an example of the high tension levels that can arise. The need to call upon middle managers who have come up through the ranks from their previous role as train drivers in order to ensure the rail service to continue to run underlines the way in which such managers can find themselves confronted with their own intermediary role. In such a scenario, they are tasked by senior management to set aside their usual supervisory responsibilities in order to get their hands dirty in the field in order to dampen the repercussions of the strike.
Such a request puts their resilience to test: they have to deal with a series of conflicting interests, finding their truly self in the midst of such disturbances, and simultaneously proving their loyalty to senior management, even if this requires making compromises on their part with all the frustrations that such a situation can generate. This kind of scenario puts them in a very delicate and fragile situation.
It comes as no surprise that various psychosocial risks now concern a large number of middle managers. According to a study conducted by Columbia University’s Seth J. Prins, from 19% to  14% of US middle managers suffer from depression, while this figure drops to 12% for CEOs and shop-floor employees.


This article is a translated version of the article “La position delicate des cadres intermédiaires” written by Ricardo Azambuja and published in Le Monde on 11th May 2018.
Ricardo Azambuja is an assistant professor of Management and Organisation at Rennes School of Business, France.  He obtained his PhD at ESSEC-Paris and his research interests include power, work, discourse and individuals’ experience in and of organizations.

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