Middle managers aren’t going extinct. They’re evolving.
Once a wasteland where careers stalled or abruptly ended in layoffs, middle management has adapted and is thriving, seeing double-digit growth in some industries. Managing others is being redefined in an increasingly complex, technologically driven economy, suggests new research from Harvard Business School, and managers who can collaborate—not just supervise and discipline—are reaping the rewards.
To support more autonomous, creative workers, organizations want managers to act “less as Army commanders and more as basketball coaches,” says Letian Zhang, the study’s author and an assistant professor of business administration at HBS.
“Organizations are adopting a more bottom-up approach, so they’re trying to unleash the potential, the creativity, and the motivation of frontline employees,” Zhang explains. “The manager’s job is less to tell them what to do, but more to inspire them. I think it’s just a smaller piece of a larger, grander transformation in organizations.”
Good management now involves coordinating and collaborating with subordinates across functions to get things done, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Sociology. While artificial intelligence promises to transform the workplace and disrupt the organizational chart, Zhang’s research suggests that middle managers will still play a key role even in innovation-heavy industries, such as software development. They often know how and when to connect groups with disparate skills—like engineering, sales, and market analysis—at key points in a project.
Extensive analysis of job postings
Zhang bases his conclusions on a unique linguistic analysis of more than 34 million online job postings for managerial openings in the United States between 2007 and 2021. He also gathered and analyzed 1 million newspaper job postings, 6 million manager resumes and job reviews, and 430,000 Indeed.com job reviews.
The data shows:
- Managerial job postings that required collaborative skills and experience increased by three times between 2007 and 2021. By contrast, job postings that included supervisory capabilities decreased by 23 percent.
- The use of collaborative phrases in newspaper job postings grew 15 percent between 1980 and 2000. Prior to 1980, references to collaboration were scarce.
- The number of managerial resumes listing supervisory experience decreased by 8 percent between 1985 and 2015, while those highlighting collaboration increased by 37 percent.
- References to supervisory duties in Indeed.com reviews decreased by 22 percent, while mentions of collaborative/teamwork skills grew by 28 percent.
Challenging conventional wisdom on middle management
During the 1980s and 1990s, middle managers became prime targets of large-scale downsizing at the behest of shareholder activists—yet the ranks of middle managers never really declined. Zhang’s data helps explain why.
Managers made up 13 percent of the US labor force in 2022, up from 9.2 percent in 1983, according to the study. Their share has continued to grow in recent years, jumping 23 percent between 2005 and 2020. During the same period, wages for managers also increased proportionally compared to those of non-managers.
Zhang believes that growth says more about changes in the economy than it does about firms allowing themselves to return to days of bloated, ineffective managerial ranks. Managers are handling a more complex set of technologically driven tasks that require substantial skill in directing processes while empowering workers to contribute to the fullest.
Middle managers unlock … innovation?
Zhang identifies a correlation between collaborative job postings and innovation in firms.
He examines research and development expenses of companies in his job postings sample, finding that firms that spent more on R&D also tend to seek managers adept at collaboration. The number of collaborative postings also increased as R&D budgets grew.
Yet Zhang notes the potential for large differences depending on the industry. “Software companies may have a greater need for a collaborative type of manager to give workers a lot of autonomy and empowerment. But for hardware companies also in the tech sector, it is possible that there’s going to be a lot less of that,” Zhang suggests.
Climbing the career ladder
The trend toward collaboration may make work more enjoyable and productive for front-line employees, but it can complicate life for managers, Zhang says.
They still maintain traditional supervisory responsibilities such as setting work schedules, enforcing human resource policies, conducting job reviews, and more. At the same time, managers are also accountable for meeting departmental and organizational goals and objectives. It puts the middle manager in the literal middle, Zhang says.
“Managers are facing competing pressures from both ends,” he explains. “They may not have absolute authority from workers from the bottom up, yet they’re still facing the performance targets and other pressures from the top down.”
The collaborative manager may have to reassess plans for career advancement, Zhang says, as organizational titles and job descriptions begin to reflect the changed landscape. As a result, managers may have to look for new positions more externally than internally.
“It’s now much more common for people to move to another employer and maybe move up in rank,” Zhang says. “The career ladder is still there, but it’s changing how you play the game.”
Adapting your management style
The evolution of management toward collaboration calls for developing a new set of skills, but employees need to remain flexible and agile, Zhang says. The world is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to say how management will look in 10 or 20 years when today’s younger employees become managers, he says, so managers need to develop “foundational” skills that allow them to adapt to changing situations.
“The technical skills are still important,” he says. “But I think it’s increasingly going to be the social skills, the cognitive skills, the ability to learn things and the ability to adapt that are going to be more important.”
For example, Zhang says, more important than learning the specifics of complex programming languages such as Python “will be knowing how to learn these things.”
Interpersonal skills will become even more important in a collaborative environment, Zhang predicts. “It’s impossible to know everything as a manager,” he says. “So, as a manager, your role is to understand the people that you’re managing—hence the need for good social skills.”
But, Zhang also notes, social skills can have varied definitions, particularly in a global economy. What’s successful in one company or country might not be successful in the next one. “A lot of these come from parental influences and community and the neighborhood,” he says. “So, I don’t want extrapolate too far, but I wonder about the implications of this for inequality in some ways.”
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Designer’s note: Illustration created using art generated by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool.