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June 2010 – Death of the Middle Manager

Workforce Learning
Alice Waagen - Workforce Learning

I Feel Your Pain

For nearly a decade, I was one of the beleaguered souls known as a middle manager.

Sandwiched between front-line supervision and senior leadership, each day was a struggle to balance the needs of the workforce with the aspirations of the top dogs.

I was the last of a dying breed.

Right before I left to start my own business (and the reason why I did so), I remember excitedly telling my boss that I was going to take over the creation of a new leadership development seminar.

It had been a few years since I had put my hand to the instructional design helm, and I was eager to begin this exciting challenge.

He said, "I don't pay you to do the work yourself. You have staff to actually produce the work. I pay you to direct them."

His comment typified the belief about the manager's job in those days. Yes, managers actually used to manage staff as their sole job function. Not any more. Read on to learn what has become of the role of the middle manager, and how organizational leaders need to rethink the concept of the flat organization.

Alice Waagen, President
Workforce Learning

20 Years Later

By Alice Waagen

The 1990's love affair with Total Quality Management (TQM) empowered work teams, process improvement, and other business buzzwords killed the professional manager.

Organizations flattened themselves, removing layers of managers, while distributing their responsibilities to key individual contributors.

This new breed of manager retained its full individual contributor duties while picking up the job of overseeing the work of staff. This concept of "working managers" permeates organizations today and has resulted, in my humble opinion, in a poorly run, overly stressed mess.

Nearly two decades later, we are still reaping the fruits of this flawed logic.

In most organizations, managers have a full plate of their own work to produce, while overseeing the work and assignments of staff.

And how does this really work? It is quite simple: The performance plans which guide a manager's personal allocation of time and attention are chock full of his or her individual goals with scant mention of the management responsibilities.

These responsibilities, such as coaching, motivating, and assessing staff, simply drop off the plate. The manager's function has shrunken to little more than occasional ad hoc conversations supplemented with a myriad of poorly written emails and a very painful event called the year end appraisal. (More on performance appraisals in my August newsletter.)

But here is the irony of it all.

Organizations have achieved little true cost savings by killing the middle manager.

Why? The work being done by the professional manager has not gone away. People still need direction and correction to successfully complete work assignments. Without this guidance, work is completed with errors and needs rework.

In my scan of organizations, I see lots of people working hard and putting in long hours. But the efficiency of this work is abysmal. My colleagues in Human Resources mostly pick up the slack when managers fail to manage. HR folks spend endless hours mediating disputes, coaching performance short falls, and calming down irate employees who clearly don't know what's expected of them.

What's the result?

Managers aren't managing, HR serves as de facto managers, and what happens to the HR work?

It gets delayed, causing more employee problems. It is enough to give anyone a headache.

I strongly encourage organizational leaders to rethink the concept of the flat organization and reinstate the profession of management.

Here are some simple steps that can push organizations closer to a better balance of management and work:

  • First, take a handful of your best and brightest managers and, over time, reduce their individual contributor goals to 50% or less of their current workload. At the same time, increase their number of direct reports by one or two positions to handle their individual assignments.
  • Second, augment managers' individual performance plans with solid and detailed performance objectives that recognize and reward fundamental management skills. People are conditioned to focus on the goals in the plan. If there is no goal around management practices, time and attention will be focused on work goals.
  • Third, provide managers with many opportunities to develop and enrich their skills as managers. Since they've never been held accountable for truly managing, they probably do not know the fundamentals of how to allocate work, provide feedback, coach and correct.

I vote that we revive the long dead professional manager and use this valuable resource to create workplaces that are effective and efficient, as well as healthier and happier places to work.

June Book Review:

By Abraham Maslow
John Wiley & Sons, 1998

Review by Dr. Alice Waagen

On the anniversary of Abraham Maslow's death (June 8, 1970), I revisited his classic book, Maslow on Management.

I return to it periodically because this transcription of the journals he kept while touring a factory in southern California in 1960, provides us with a unique view of management that applies today.

Best known for his theory of human motivation, centered on self-actualization and the phrase "hierarchy of needs," Maslow maintained that the basic human drive is for self-actualization, and the need to fulfill one's full potential. He was a master of the science of psychology, who broke from the early traditions of Freud and the behaviorists to devote his life to research into positive psychology.

Known as the father of humanistic psychology, Maslow saw value in advancing the understanding of what motivates and satisfies people, as opposed to the study of neuroses. He proposed an enlightened set of theories about man as a healthy being striving to achieve full potential. Drucker, McGregor, Argyris, Likert and other writers on business and management have openly attested to the powerful influence Maslow had on their thinking.

Maslow's unique contribution, and the reason I return to this book over and over, is that he views the job of a manager much more broadly than simply assigning tasks and monitoring results. He believed that every worker needs to be committed to important and worthwhile work as the path to happiness and fulfillment or self actualization. He saw it as a manager's critical responsibility to help individuals reach their full potential, which would then result in better, healthier workplaces and communities, and would benefit society, in general.

Reading Maslow in light of the horrendous errors in leadership shown by Enron, WorldCom, and now British Petroleum, we see that the workplace is not just an isolated environment, but one that affects the community it serves, both locally and globally. Maslow's focus on humanistic management and the role, indeed the responsibility, of management to address an employee's full potential and self worth through meaningful work has huge implications.

I only wish that Maslow, who died on June 8, 1970, could comment on the business world today and how management is fulfilling the assignment of guiding staff to meaningful and rewarding work. One can only imagine what he'd suggest.



What I Learned as a Manager – and How It Helped Me Do Good Work in the Other Parts of My Life

In the May 13 issue of the Arlington Connection, reporter Delia Sava wrote about the work I do as a board member of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia.

While I was honored to be featured in the article, my true honor was being part of this incredible group that is dedicated to helping build shelter for those in need.

Last year, I worked with some of my favorite female colleagues to create Women Who Build, and raise $5000 for a build day. We more than accomplished our goal and were proud to contribute.

I felt the effectiveness of my management skills in all their glory. I also remembered those words my old boss uttered, "I don't pay you to do the work yourself. You have staff to actually produce the work. I pay you to direct them."

In this case, I was able to accomplish the management goal – and fulfill my personal desire to make a contribution with my own hands.

Following is an excerpt from Delia's article that ran in The Arlington Connection.

For information on being part of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, visit

National Women Build Week Highlights Habitat for Humanity's Work

By Delia Sava
The Arlington Connection,
May 13, 2010

Alice Waagen is wearing a hard hat and a tool belt and she's covered in dust from the demolition work she is doing at the Perry Hall Condominium, the Habitat for Humanity 12-unit building on South 17th Street in Arlington. The construction project is an existing apartment building that will be converted to condominiums.

Waagen is taking part in National Women Build Week (May 1-9), an initiative by Lowe's and Habitat for Humanity which challenges women to devote at least one day to efforts to eliminate poverty housing. This is the first Women Build event for Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia.

"My female friends who knew of my work with Habitat would tell me, 'Oh, I'd love to do that but I can't hammer, I can't saw, I can't give back' and this drove me crazy because the way that the program works – the volunteer house leaders break down every task so that it's suitable for anybody's size, anybody's level of skill," Waagen said.

Waagen started volunteering with Habitat over five years ago. "I was mostly helping in the office with recruiting and staffing issues. My background is in human resources so I started in that capacity, but, as part of the Habitat family, I was also helping on build days," said Waagen.

Then in the fall of 2008, as a way to encourage more women to get involved, Waagen founded Habitat Women Who Build. The group works under the umbrella of Habitat for Humanity to raise money and bring together women from all walks of life to volunteer on the construction projects.

Virginia Patton, of the NoVa chapter of Habitat says Waagen has been instrumental in the local success of the Lowe's initiative. "We are very grateful for her support – not only does she faithfully serve on the board of directors but she also contributes significantly through Women Who Build," said Patton.

When Patton contacted Waagen this past winter to tell her about the Lowe's grant, she immediately agreed: "Absolutely we can do that, and I went back to my network and found this group of women [about 25] and that's why we're here today."

As the construction manager, Harry Street is responsible for all the work on the project. He says he has a group of dedicated volunteers, nicknamed "the sandlot gang" who have good skills and help to train less experienced volunteers. Street came to work for Habitat four years ago, after having owned a general contracting business for 23 years. He is quick to note that they use sub-contractors for the plumbing and electrical work, which requires a license to perform.

"We are going to put families in here that need affordable housing ... they work in the community but can't afford to live here," Street said. Families who qualify will also contribute 300 to 500 hours [depending on the size of the family] of "sweat equity" in their future home. "You get to meet lots of different people and they're all working together and they really feel great that they've helped out. Even in this economy, the corporate groups have been really generous," Street said.

According to Waagen, the project will take an estimated 18 months to complete and require an "army of volunteers." Over the course of a project, relationships are established between the future homeowners and the volunteers. "I always say if you're only building two days a week with a volunteer unskilled workforce, 18 months is pretty darn good," Waagen laughed.

The Mother's Day timeframe was chosen for the initiative because of its significance. More than 12 million children – one in six – live in poverty housing in the United States. Waagen wants to see more women involved:

"I think women have a very special sense of home and family...I want to let women know that they can contribute, they can participate. It's a woman's thing."

Waagen enjoys her work, but says the ultimate reward for her is at the dedication ceremony, when the building is complete and they turn over the keys to the homeowners. "It is one of the most moving ceremonies," she smiled and added, "Lots of Kleenex."

Published by Inkandescent Public Relations, Hope Katz Gibbs: Editor

© 2010 Workforce Learning