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Charting a new path for middle management

Middle management will change but isn't going anywhere.

5 min read


Middle managers


For just about any organization, line managers are where the rubber meets the road. The C-suite sets an organization’s culture and values and creates the strategy, but the line managers are the people who actually make it happen.

The evidence is all around us, such as the recent Starbucks controversy in Philadelphia where a rogue manager called the police on two African-American customers who were waiting to meet a friend, setting off a public relations nightmare for the company.

The incident was precipitated by a local decision likely made by one person, but it had widespread ramifications. What happened wasn’t an extension of the Starbucks brand that we know — the company’s history and its decision to shut down corporate-owned stores for a day for diversity training is compelling evidence of this. Nevertheless, the disconnect between the corporate culture and the management carrying out those policies had serious consequences. The takeaway is that middle managers matter.

But will they always matter? I’ve been pondering how the role of middle management will change in the next few years as the nature of work itself is reconfigured with the adoption of automation and artificial intelligence. I still believe managers will always be needed in some capacity, but their roles will almost certainly evolve.

Setting the tone

With any discussion about middle management it’s important to first understand how the connection between line managers and a company’s leadership is vital in setting the organization’s culture.

We tend to spend a lot of time talking about how leadership sets culture, as well as the importance of training and surveying the average employee. But the truth is that middle managers are where culture ultimately happens or doesn’t happen, and they are usually taking cues from the C-suite — especially the CEO.

The C-suite owns the direction, the strategy and most importantly the cultural and behavioral norms in the organization. Line managers primarily take their cues from the top of the house, and they are held accountable and responsible for output, for meeting goals, achieving deadlines and creating customer value. They set the example for the people that report to them.

If your company’s stated values are one thing and your leaders act in a way that’s 180 degrees from that, and there are no consequences for that behavior, then those values effectively don’t count. Middle managers will know this and will follow that example, so be intentional about what you are projecting from the top down.

What the future holds

So given the vital role of middle management currently, what does that role look like in an economy reconfigured by automation? No one knows for sure. I think there is likely a future with fewer line managers, but I don’t see a scenario where we don’t have any kind of managers.

Even if there is a more automated future with significantly fewer employees, we will still need managers to interact with customers. Perhaps the definition of what a line manager is will shift slightly, with their focus more on customer management than employee management.

In a specialty retail store, for example — such as a coffee shop or or ice cream shop — perhaps through advances in automation, the majority of the customer service activities will not be handled by humans. But even in this scenario, these companies will still almost certainly need humans in some form, along with somebody to lead those team members.

Shifting roles

There’s no question that whole industries will be disrupted by robotics and AI, and that shift will have a stark impact on middle management. Those effects will vary substantially from industry to industry, with some disruptions requiring wholesale changes within middle management.

For example, if you look closely at job openings nationwide, you’ll see that there are more openings for long-haul truck drivers than for any other jobs — and there’s a shortage of about 50,000 drivers. This demand exists despite the very likely reality of the widespread adoption of driverless trucks in the next five to eight years, which has the potential to eliminate vast numbers of those jobs.

Consequently, many of the middle managers in the over-the-road trucking business are either going to disappear or be forced to take on much different roles. Instead of middle managers of people, they may be middle managers of truck robotics, repair technicians and computer programmers. There will still be a trucking business and there will still be plenty of humans involved in it, but there just won’t be as many drivers. Line managers will be forced to adapt through training and flexibility.

And even in the automated companies of the future, they will still have an important role to play.


China Gorman is managing director leading American operations for UNLEASH, the world’s largest event organizer for the Future of Work and HR Tech. (UNLEASH was formerly known as HR Tech World). UNLEASH America will be welcoming back North America’s industry insiders, entrepreneurs and innovators in Las Vegas on May 15 and 16 at the Aria Resort & Casino.

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