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Ideas for Leaders #795

The Unique Psychology of Being a Middle Manager

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Key Concept

Caught between low-power employees and high-power executives, the ‘middle power’ of middle managers keeps them hopping between the roles of subordinate and superior. A new Theory of Power framework helps middle managers, their bosses and their organizations identify the challenges and psychological consequences of their caught-in-the-middle position. 

Idea Summary

Research on power in organizations often treats power as unidirectional—how subordinates deal with superiors or how superiors deal with subordinates. Two researchers challenge this static, unidirectional perspective with a new theory of power framework built on the concept of a continuum of a sense of power. In their interactions with others, individuals are not always in a position of power or always in a position of subordination. Instead, some interactions will be downward (interacting with a subordinate) or upward (interacting with a superior). On the framework’s continuum, individuals in a higher range of a hierarchy, such as senior managers, will have a sense of high power because the great majority of their interactions with others in the organization are downward. Individuals in the lower range of the hierarchy, such as frontline employees, will have a sense of low power because the majority of their interactions are upward.

For individuals, such as middle managers, positioned in the middle range of the hierarchy, and thus near the middle of the sense of power continuum, the ratio of downward versus upward interactions does not heavily favour one direction or the other. Instead they find themselves constantly alternating between upward and downward interactions, an unstable situation that leads to often-overlooked psychological consequences for two reasons. 

First, people are governed by different codes of behaviours and norms depending on whether they are interacting with someone with more power or less power than them. For example, individuals are expected to act deferential and respectful to someone above them, while acting assertive and with authority with someone who is their subordinate. Constantly toggling between upward and downward interactions requires toggling between the different correct codes of behaviours—what psychologists call frequent vertical code switching.

Second, as a result of frequent vertical code switching, middle managers and others near the middle of the power continuum never settle into a stable, consistent role or identity. They often have to meet the expectations and norms of a superior or a leader, but are also frequently in a subordinate role. This position leads to role conflict: the internal intension between conflicting expectations and behaviours experienced by individuals continuously alternating between opposite roles.

After establishing the sense of power continuum, the researchers’ Approach/Inhibition/Avoidance (AIA) Theory of Power framework draws on the latest neuropsychological research to explain the dominant neural motivational systems—and resulting emotions and behaviours—for individuals in the three sense-of-power ranges. The brains of individuals with a sense of higher power activate the behavioural approach system (BAS), which leads to positive emotions and behaviours that focus on rewards. The brains of individuals with a low sense of power activate the Flight-Fight-Freeze System (FFFS), which leads to fear as a dominant emotion and behaviours focus on avoiding threats. As for middle managers, according to the framework, they are prone to the neural activation of the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS): their behaviour is inhibited as a result of the anxiety caused by the role conflict and frequent vertical code switching.  That is, while not as fearful of immediate threats as front-line employees, middle-range individuals are still focused on cautious behaviour in anticipation of potential threats and conflicts.

Business Application

With this innovative theory of power framework, the researchers offer corporate leaders a new perspective—and a new appreciation—of the challenges faced by middle managers. Many organizations and leaders may not realize the psychological toll of the continuous toggling between subordinate and superior leadership roles, which can lead to anxiety, stress and inhibited behaviour—and, research has shown, subsequent serious health problems such as hypertension and depression.

Companies and senior leaders can take a number of steps to attenuate the pressures on middle managers:

  • Flatten the hierarchy. The more rigidly hierarchical the organization, the more pressure on middle managers. In addition to reducing upward and downward interactions, a more egalitarian structure decreases the distance between interacting individuals of different levels.
  • Simplify the reporting structure. Create organizational structures in which middle managers have one boss and multiple subordinates rather than multiple bosses and multiple subordinates. Also minimize meetings in which the middle manager must go back and forth between subordinate and superior relationships.
  • Avoid micro-managing. Micro-managing middle managers exacerbates the vertical role switching. Senior leaders can provide the strategies, but should then let middle managers remain in fixed in a state of high-power as they guide their subordinates in implementing those strategies.
  • Help managers see their roles as integrated, not segmented. Organizations can also help managers develop a coherent and integrated identity that spans the boundaries (and conflicts) of their roles—for example, by linking explicitly their middle-power duties to the broader organizational mission. The goal: a self-identity that is not split between being a superior and being a subordinate, but that is instead being a middle manager who’s role in the middle is key to the company. 
  • Set formal interaction routines. Clearly defined routines for downward and upward interactions will make middle managers more comfortable in switching from one type to another. 
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Idea conceived

  • October 2017

Idea posted

  • June 2021

DOI number



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