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Dismantling the middle (I/II)

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By Jef Teugels

· 12 min read

This article is part one of a two-part series on the role and impact of middle management in organizations. You can find part two here.


Background of middle management 

Middle management in business is neither unique nor without controversy. Middle managers occupy an awkward spot between executives and frontline workers in organizations; they are expected to fulfill various responsibilities. At first glance, this tier in an organizational structure seems essential as it promises to bridge any gaps between high-level strategy and daily operations, but does its presence actually serve or harm an organization's goals over time?

Middle management typically refers to top-level executives and managers overseeing day-to-day operations for an organization and providing supervision and assistance for lower-level employees in carrying out its policies and strategies. Their responsibilities entail planning, coordinating, evaluating, and guiding lower-level employees. 

On closer examination, however, middle managers exhibit an array of complex and contradictory duties. Should we view them as strategic implementers or functionaries bogged down by bureaucracy? Are they helping people communicate and develop new ideas or act as gatekeepers of information as it moves down their ranks? 

Furthermore, middle management as an individual component has been scrutinized in organizations. Critics argue that its extra bureaucracy and red tape levels hinder innovation and efficiency; therefore, they contend it should not be seen as an asset but rather as a design flaw that reduces company agility in reacting rapidly to ever-evolving markets. 

Middle management deserves closer scrutiny and in-depth study, even though its name implies necessity and necessity. The following sections will explore this contentious area further, shedding light on its inherent tensions and inconsistencies while exploring why so many organizations incorporate middle management practices today. 

Historical context of middle management in organizational hierarchy

Middle management's rise did not happen overnight or without historical context. Instead, it has been driven by more profound social and economic shifts that warrant a closer examination of its past development—given its current state and ongoing criticisms accompanying it, tracing back its historical development warrants further consideration. 

As large firms mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution, their complexity necessitated an intricate organizational structure to manage mass production; middle management quickly established itself. Managers in this new organizational symphony played an essential role, bridging upper management's lofty goals and the mundane duties of lower-level employees. 

Critiques of middle management became more intense as industries evolved. Authors like Peter Drucker voiced doubts about its value by the mid-20th century; companies started asking whether this layer, designed to solve existing issues, had become a source of trouble instead. 

The Internet has given rise to even more significant concerns. Middle managers' traditional roles as information gatekeepers were rendered increasingly ineffective as technology-enabled more excellent communication and connectedness; what had once been considered essential now seems like a bottleneck that prevents quick decision-making processes from being undertaken efficiently. 

Current organizational structure trends toward flatter, more adaptable structures fuel this debate. Leading examples of businesses that have ditched traditional hierarchies in favor of decentralized networks include Valve and Zappos; by doing this, these businesses claim that middle management is no longer relevant due to their inability to keep pace with rapid business change. 

Middle management emerged from the Industrial Revolution and is at an impasse today; its value and usefulness are being called into question by some. While some defend its essential function in contemporary businesses, others hold that middle management is more an obstacle than an aid when facing modern problems. As we investigate deeper into history, the debate about middle management becomes clearer; more people see its existence as a fundamental threat to modern organizations' structure - an analysis of this deeply embedded layer is more than an attack; it challenges business strategy itself. 

Middle management as an organizational design flaw

Middle management can be seen as a design flaw that negatively affects productivity and employee engagement, thus leading to diminished employee morale and productivity. 

Middle management's role within today's vast corporate system remains under debate. When examined more closely, what was once believed to be the organization's vital connective tissue may be an enormous design flaw. This opinion seeks to dispel any myth that middle management is a unifying force; instead, it shows it as an obstacle and barrier. 

Middle management's role in an organization's vitality remains tenuous due to its inherent flaws. Middle management adds another tier of control, which may paradoxically water down leadership goals, cause communication breakdown, and lead to employee disengagement. Misunderstandings regarding middle management as a productivity booster aside, its very existence often stunts innovation and undermines an organization's vitality. 

We will present in these pages an indictment of popular beliefs of an apparent positive correlation between management levels, productivity, and job happiness. Instead, it suggests that extra bureaucracy is an oversight in system design that slows work down while alienating the people it was meant to help. 

Middle management may seem obsolete in a world that celebrates speed, originality, and transparency as essential ingredients of success. Yet its existence calls into question just how flexible and responsive organizations can be and the human costs associated with rigid hierarchies. 

As such, this analysis will take an in-depth approach to middle management, exploring its theoretical foundations, practical effects, and relationship to productivity and employee engagement. The goal is not just comprehension but to confront, describe, and dissect middle management within organizations to identify whether it serves a necessary function or has outlived its usefulness. 

Hierarchical versus flat structures 

In organizational theory, the conflict between hierarchical and flat structures has moved beyond mere theoretical discourse to become an ideological war exposing both traditional, inflexible thinking and innovation through flat systems. This clash of ideologies does not play out more prominently than within middle management itself. 

Hierarchical structures 

Hierarchies, with their many tiers and delineated lines of authority, go beyond being just a form of organization; they also represent conservatism. Middle management serves as the cornerstone of this structure, symbolizing its commitment to controlling power centralization while betraying an organization's lack of faith in the workers it claims to help. 

Antiquated systems relevant during the Industrial Revolution have now become monuments to inertia and inefficiency, serving no one other than themselves. From Max Weber's bureaucratic model to Mintzberg's Organizational Typology, hierarchical structures provide no opportunity for growth; their theory supports stagnant formats instead. They remain outdated in an ever-evolving world.

Flat structures 

Flat structures are often misunderstood and misapplied at the other extreme of this spectrum despite their revolutionary potential. By eliminating intermediaries, these organizational models dare to dream of an environment in which workers are more than cogs in a machine. 

Companies such as Valve and Zappos that have taken bold steps toward adopting flat structures demonstrate that businesses can thrive without upper management interference. Their examples put to shame those who cling to old-fashioned ways of organizing. 

As discussed previously, comparing hierarchical vs. flat systems isn't simply about debate; instead, it provides an insightful examination of everyday thinking that exposes its flaws and myopia. It reveals a theoretical deficit in understanding how people can collaborate creatively; middle management causes friction instead of harmony, thus hindering the development that it was meant to encourage. 

Residing faithfully within hierarchical structures and refusing to see the potential of flat organizations is both wasteful of time and an intellectual betrayal of current opportunities. This analysis has gone further; it has become a protest, an attack against an organizational philosophy that persistently prioritizes command and control over individual initiative, dogma over experimentation, and history over today. Now is the time to test our ideas; trying them will lead us down an avenue that advances management theory further in future years. 

How middle management creates additional layers and potential inefficiencies

To simplify things, many organizations create another layer of administration in the middle, thinking they will solve synergy, equilibrium, and command issues. However, analysis reveals that it builds complexity, ushers in inefficiency, and threatens entanglement to organizations with which it intends to reduce entanglement. 

Middle management as a necessary mechanism for translating top brass goals into action is an unfounded assumption, presuming complexity can be controlled through more layers of abstraction, information can travel unaltered across intermediary platforms, and authority can be exercised without restricting initiative and adaptability - an insult to contemporary organizational theory! 

Middle management often makes matters worse in organizations by adding layers of red tape and blocking effective decision-making processes, as well as confusing organizational structures that hinder rather than promote productivity. No way around it; it acts like a wall. And no benefit accrues; in fact, it hinders progress. 

Gary Hamel and others have pointed out that excessive complexity can be counterproductive, leading to unnecessary bureaucracy. Unfortunately, however, complacency and an established order tend to silence critical voices. 

Complexity has led to significant inefficiencies that impede progress toward organizational goals and lead teams to lose momentum, encouraging inactivity as an alternative to activity, conformity over originality, and boredom over excitement. 

Middle management's added layers of complexity can have a devastating impact on an organization's culture. As more layers arise, separation increases and it becomes harder for everyone involved to work efficiently together - this is more than an observation; it is evidence of an outdated system allowed to thrive for too long without significant opposition.

Complications and inefficiencies associated with middle management pose existential threats in today's dynamic, rapidly changing globalized world, necessitating agility, responsiveness, and continuous innovation. Lessons learned by successful organizations that have dared to confront this flawed paradigm are being called into question - justifying or upholding them would be to discredit the triumphs that have occurred within them. 

Therefore, this piece serves more than simply criticism; it is an impassioned plea for us all to see middle management for what it truly is: an anachronism and an unnecessary layer of complexity. No longer should respect be the measure for action against middle management - the time has come for real change! 

How added layers slow decision-making 

Middle management's burdensome procedures make the problem of increasing productivity more intriguing yet dismal. Under the pretense of coordination and control, bureaucratic processes emerge that sap an organization's agility while creating lethargy, indecision, and complete ineffectiveness. 

Middle management levels complicate decision-making rather than streamlining it, leading to an ever-increasing web of rules, approvals, meetings, and protocols more fitting of Kafkaesque horror than modern businesses. Instead of facilitating decision-making further, adding middle management levels entangles it with more red tape than it needs, creating unnecessary delays that sap responsiveness from an organization and threatening mediocrity. 

Instead of making things easier, increased bureaucracy exacerbates issues. After passing through each level of administration, an idea often loses strength, losing its original character and losing much of its vitality. 

Peter Drucker generally supports management yet warns against excessive bureaucracy. Unfortunately, modern organizations often ignore his advice in favor of building layers of middle management like monuments to inefficiency. 

Think about all the time wasted, lost opportunities, and creativity blocked by these extra layers. Consider staff who feel their ideas are stuck in an endless cycle of revisions, approvals, and rejections. Alternatively, consider working in an environment where nothing gets done because everyone remains locked into a debate over nothing tangible being accomplished. 

These observations do not come from an outside observer but represent daily realities businesses worldwide must confront. Studies replicated by Boston Consulting Group have consistently shown that decisions take longer when more people are involved, something that cannot be debated; evidence supports this conclusion. 

Opponents of middle management continue to defend these levels, advocate for bureaucratic processes, and disregard the steady erosion of productivity they produce with an apparent disregard that borders on delusion. Such thinking constitutes not an argument but simply a dismissal of foundations upon which any effective organization must rest. 

Bureaucratic procedures and extra layers of middle management can hinder decision-making. Still, their presence also insults agile organization culture, betrays efficiency principles, and creates an uncomfortable, tragic comedy of errors that would be laughable were it not so tragically real. Our tolerance of bureaucracy in middle management is what's truly sad. 

Communication issues encountered when adding additional layers will be the focal point of this play. We witness in bureaucratic theatre the gradual dismantling of precision, the gradual 

degradation of comprehension, and the sinister twisting of communications into an unrecognizable caricature of itself: meaning lost forever in translation. 

Middle management levels do not act as conduits of information; instead, they act as filters, sieves, and mazes through which messages gradually lose meaning and urgency as they travel down the chain of command. It's like playing "Chinese whispers," wherein an original message loses its depth and significance by the time it reaches its final destination. 

Not by any stretch. Harvard Business Review and other publications have extensively documented the adverse effects of organizational hierarchy on communication. Yet, many companies believe, in denial, that its presence improves rather than hinders communication. 

Imagine how much time and resources are wasted through miscommunication, misinterpretation, misunderstandings, and frustration when messages are watered down, twisted, delayed, or ignored; trust can erode while silos form within teams, which creates an atmosphere in which information isn't shared but hoarded rather than clarified for clarity purposes. 

Communication, the lifeblood of any company, has been severely impaired in this bureaucratic war zone. This is no mere glitch; this threatens our very existence - this is no simple test but rather a catastrophe! 

Middle management's proponents will insist that such structures are essential because they establish authority and foster cohesiveness. Still, such claims are just empty words used as a last-ditch defense for an ideology widely discredited and rejected by those daring enough to challenge its status quo. 

Upper management's communication barriers are more than inconvenient; they signal their disregard for an organization's openness, cooperation, and responsiveness. Their presence shows they prioritize process over people while prioritizing conformity over innovation. 

As such, this critique goes beyond simply providing criticism; it serves as a plea for change within an ineffective system that hinders employees' communication within any organization - an essential aspect of its functioning - with unnecessary red tape and outdated practices. Furthermore, this piece serves as a rallying cry and challenge to those who defend this obsolete method to see reality for what it really is: an imperial approach that doesn't work anymore. 

Middle management's communication barriers are not simply symptoms of an ineffective system; they're the hallmark of its failure, an ode to an outdated model that must be put to rest if organizations want to survive in today's interconnected, globalized marketplace. We no longer overlook this tragedy; that is the incapacity of middle management to communicate effectively.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Jef Teugels designs planet- and people-first solutions and is a post-graduate researcher. He explores the energy created by the friction between customer behavior, organizational readiness, and exponential technologies. Born at 319.62 ppm, he’s a father and a grandfather trying to develop some intergenerational value.

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