Career Fortitude



If you’re a middle manager and find yourself being stretched too thin, unable to focus your attention on critical areas of the business, or feeling like you’re attempting to wear too many hats at once, you’re not alone.  Middle management is a challenging position because you answer to and must deliver to multiple layers within the organization.  Just like the name states you’re in the middle, where it can be lonely, and exhausting, but there are ways organizations and upper management can improve middle manager performance.

I’m Philip Hilt, leadership and career coach, and today I want to talk about the struggles facing middle managers and what can be done to alleviate some pressure so middle managers and organizations are driving business results together.  If you’re a middle manager or upper manager with middle managers working for you, get ready to hear how organizations and upper management can address the struggles facing middle managers and improve middle manager performance.

A recent article on reported that employee confidence has fallen significantly among middle managers in recent years.  Employee confidence dropped 6.3% from 54.6% in February 2023 to 48.3% in February 2024.  (Zhou 2024,

Less than 50% of middle managers feeling confident in their role should be very alarming to organizations.  The role of middle managers in an organization is extremely important and the organization should be investing enough support and energy in this mid-level space to fuel confidence in their leaders.

If middle managers are struggling to maintain confidence, guess who is directly impacted by the effects of it.  It’s the front-line employees, the individual contributors and associate-level employees.  These front-line employees rely on middle managers to provide strategy, training, and growth opportunities.  If middle managers are performing individual contributor tasks, are overwhelmed with work, or aren’t provided the time and resources for longer-term planning, organizational efficiency and results will suffer.

Middle managers play a pivotal role in the success of any organization.  They act as the buffer between upper management and front-line employees.  When middle managers aren’t afforded the tools and resources to be effective in maintaining this space between upper management and front-line employees, their ability to keep the organization’s engine running is greatly hindered.

I’ll share more details on exactly why middle managers are critical for organizational success:

  • Middle Managers Bridge between Strategy and Execution:
    • While top executives devise strategic plans, it’s the middle managers who translate these plans into actionable tasks for their teams.  They break down high-level objectives into manageable goals and ensure alignment with the organization’s vision.
    • It’s critical that upper management provides middle managers with the time and support to form strategies for their teams.  Without strategy, there’s only execution which leads to confusion and disengagement across the team.
  • Middle Managers Provide Effective Communication Channels:
    • They serve as conduits for information flow within the organization.  They relay directives from upper management to their teams and provide valuable feedback and insights from the ground level back to upper management.  This ensures that decisions are well-informed and responsive to the realities on the front lines.
    • Not having the right information passed down through the organization creates massive productivity loss and time wasted.  Feedback flow back up from the ground level is imperative for adjusting strategies and alignment on initiatives.
  • Middle Managers Motivate and Engage Teams:
    • They are instrumental in fostering a positive work culture and keeping employees motivated.  They provide guidance, support, and mentorship, empowering their teams to perform at their best.
    • By recognizing achievements and addressing concerns promptly, they cultivate a sense of belonging and commitment among employees.  Middle managers are on the front-line building and maintaining the culture of the team.
  • Middle Managers are Responsible for Operational Efficiency and Adaptability:
    • Middle managers are adept at managing resources, optimizing processes, and adapting to changing circumstances.  They are quick to identify inefficiencies and implement improvements, driving operational excellence across departments.
    • It’s crucial that middle managers aren’t overloaded with lower-level tasks and administrative work that takes away from continuously analyzing and improving processes.
  • Middle Managers are Adept at Conflict Resolution and Problem-Solving:
    • They are skilled at mediating disputes and resolving issues before they escalate.  Their ability to navigate complex situations and make timely decisions is essential for maintaining harmony and productivity within teams.
    • Without the proper focus on cultivating engagement the risk for conflicts increases.  This creates disruptions in the team and impacts productivity and execution of organizational strategies.
  • Middle Managers Focus on Leadership Development:
    • Middle managers play a crucial role in grooming future leaders within the organization.  By providing opportunities for skill development and advancement, they ensure a steady pipeline of talent capable of steering the company toward its long-term objectives.
    • If upper management is providing development to middle managers, it’s more likely the development focus will also be a part of the middle manager’s leadership routine with their direct reports.

As you can see, middle managers carry a lot of responsibility for the organization by wearing many hats to ensure employees and business strategies are supported.  You could say middle managers are the backbone of an organization, balancing strategic vision with operational realities, fostering teamwork and innovation, and driving performance at every level.  Without their guidance and expertise, companies would struggle to translate lofty goals into tangible results.  There should be a constant focus on how organizations can improve middle manager performance.

I’ve talked about what middle managers should be working on, but now let’s talk about what they’re actually doing in a lot of cases.  McKinsey and Company performed a survey of middle managers across organizations to find out how they were actually spending their time.  They found that 49% of the middle manager’s time was being spent on nonmanagerial tasks.  Basically, half of their time.

More specifically, middle managers stated that they were spending nearly one full day a week on administrative work, and even more time was taken up by tasks that are considered individual-contributor work.  These middle managers are leaders of people, but on average they say they spend less than a third of their time on talent and people management.  This is extremely alarming because such an important part of middle management is coaching employees, supporting their growth, recruiting, and building dynamic teams.

When it came time to answer survey questions about what was keeping these middle managers from performing their core duties, nearly half stated that they didn’t have the time to spend on it.  Another 35% said they didn’t have the resources required.  This is easy to imagine.  For example: If a manager doesn’t have enough staffing or does not have the right talent on staff, it’s up to the manager to take on the workload to ensure it gets done.  Even if the work needed to be performed does not fall directly into that manager’s responsibilities.  There’s not any other option, the work must be completed.

The McKinsey & Company survey also identified a large gap in what type of work managers consider providing the most value compared to what they feel their organization values most.  80% of managers considered strategy-focused work and talent and people management to be the areas that produced the most value, while only 63% considered these areas to be what the organization valued most.

Only 20% of surveyed managers strongly agreed that their organizations help them be successful people managers.  42% of respondents either disagree or are unsure that their organizations set them up to be successful people managers.

(McKinsey & Company 2023,

Unfortunately, a large number of companies are treating middle managers as the catchall, requiring managers to spend much of their time handling nonmanagerial work rather than allowing them to focus on the most critical aspects of an organization, fostering talent and driving business initiatives.

I can share with you from my personal experiences in middle management what this feels like.  I’ve been on teams where upper management did provide the support structure for middle managers to succeed and I’ve also been on teams where there was very little support.  The times when I had leadership who dedicated the time and energy to support my development with constant feedback, training, and action planning, I was able to handle the workload and quickly improve my leadership skills.  Support from upper management translated into action by understanding what I needed in order to be successful and make the strategic vision of the organization a reality.

In an organization where support from upper management was nonexistent, my upper leadership was unaware of what tasks I was performing day-to-day and was unable to offer guidance when I requested feedback and support for improving my skills.  Instead of using my leadership abilities to develop the talent of my team and focus on strategies for the business, I was stuck in the weeds performing individual contributor tasks and even front-line worker tasks.

In that experience I was vocal with my leader, I let them know I was unable to work on continuous improvement or team-building initiatives to help grow the business because I was spending too much time with administrative work.  Even after laying out the impact on the business my boss still instructed me to keep working on the nonmanagerial tasks to meet the short-term goals of the company.  Instead of working on initiatives to improve productivity and efficiency for the upcoming months, I was told to focus on tasks that only resulted in reaching short-term daily goals.  This pattern of neglecting future growth for the company repeated day after day, resulting in me feeling like I was failing every day and I was an inadequate leader for my team.

This lack of vision and business strategy impacts middle managers the most because they not only have to execute the tasks upper management has handed down, but they also have to try to explain to their team why they’re working on these nonmanagerial tasks instead of supporting and developing the team.  The buffer between upper management and the front-line workers can become an uncomfortable space for middle managers as they try to navigate not being heard and attempting to motivate their team without adequate resources.

Managers who are provided adequate resources and development support can proactively identify and address challenges.  They identify developing opportunities and make well-informed decisions that drive productivity and efficiency for the organization.  When middle managers have the time to put their leadership development into action, they can eliminate busy work and begin to focus on innovations that drive a company forward.

So where should upper management focus more energy to ensure the backbone of the organization isn’t headed to being overloaded, burned out, and struggling to hold the emotional weight of balancing the demands from upper-level and front-line workers?

There are many ways an organization can provide middle managers with support so they can succeed.  Here are the 3 main areas where upper management can improve middle manager performance:

  1. Provide Emotional Support
  • If middle management is the backbone of the organization, think of it in terms of the human body.  If you have a back injury that limits your mobility and keeps you from performing the basic tasks of daily life, you’re not going to give up and just not perform the basic functions to live a full life.  You’re going to get help from a doctor.  Or better yet, before an injury even occurs, you’re going to work on preventative measures to avoid injury in the first place.
  • Upper management should be investing in supporting the emotional and mental state of the backbone of the company.  Just like muscles in our bodies, there needs to be activities to engage and strengthen emotional intelligence in order to remain fit and take on any challenges as a leader.
  1. Continued Leadership Development
  • Middle managers need constant training for their leadership skills.  Organizations need to provide a developmental foundation for managers to use in parallel with meeting the goals of the organization.  There must be accountability from the top down to ensure leaders of leaders are constantly working on development action plans for leadership growth that in turn drive the business goals.
  • Without this developmental support middle managers can feel undervalued and not empowered to perform their work.
  1. Adequate Resources
  • How many times in your career have you felt crippled by the lack of resources available to do your work?  I know it’s a major struggle with middle managers because I’ve felt that pain at times in my career.  It’s not only frustrating to not have the necessary resources to perform your job, but it can also feel defeating when day in and day out you’re bogged down in the minutia of tasks taking away from managerial work.
  • Key resources needed to execute efficiently are having the right tools to do the job, having the right talent structure in place, and support from upper management in helping to remove obstacles within the organization.  Too often middle managers become the catch-all for lack of tools, inadequate staffing, and being the one who not only identifies organizational obstacles but is left alone to solely fix the problem.  This lack of resources snowballs over time and can begin to cripple the manager’s ability to perform efficiently.

Despite the challenges and obstacles, being a leader who works with the front-line employees to drive business results is a very rewarding position within an organization.  Middle managers play a vital role in driving organizational success and building strong teams.  Middle managers must be resilient and courageous to face the challenges, which unfortunately can often lead to struggle.  By acknowledging and addressing these struggles, organizations can support their middle managers in overcoming obstacles and thriving in their roles.

I’ve shared a lot of obstacles middle managers face in their work, but there are also so many benefits of working in these roles in an environment of support and partnership from upper management.  I’ll go into more detail on all the benefits of leading a team through middle management in another blog, so stay tuned for more future content for more insights and ways to improve career satisfaction as a middle manager.

If you’re a middle manager needing support in your leadership development journey, check out the links in the notes or go to to learn more about my services and schedule a free consultation to determine what next steps will best support your career advancement.  I help middle managers unlock the confidence, clarity, and vision needed to work through the struggles of middle management so you’re feeling fulfilled in your career and are ready to advance even further.

Until next time, always keep learning and always keep growing.

Philip Hilt – Leadership & Career Coach

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