All Articles Leadership Management Middle management is the stepchild of leadership development. This is bad for your company

Middle management is the stepchild of leadership development. This is bad for your company

Middle managers get a lot of responsibility and little development. Why can't we do better?

5 min read



SmartBrief illustration

Middle managers have it rough. Although usually far enough into their careers to have a lot of things figured out, they get organizationally squeezed: edicts coming down on them from above, and problems rising to them from below.

It’s no wonder that my middle management coaching clients often feel more overwhelmed than their executive counterparts. And it’s not just my own clients feeling the pressure. According to research, middle management tends to exhibit more stress than either independent contributors or executives.

As an executive coach, I get to see stress first hand in both executives and middle managers. I see the toll it takes on their productivity, fulfilment and results. I can tell you that human stress is the same no matter what the person’s title who is experiencing it, but I see almost debilitating stress more often with middle managers.

The school of hard knocks supports a dysfunctional corporate culture

In my experience, many companies view middle management as the crucible for leadership development. Promising young people are given greater and greater responsibility until they break, fall victim to the Peter Principle or emerge from the flames whole enough to be considered for promotion into the executive ranks.

I don’t think such an employee development mentality is mean-spirited, and I also don’t think it’s always a bad thing. There is a lot of value in attending the School of Hard Knocks.

However, as an executive coach, here’s what I notice about this default leadership development philosophy: it bakes into both the budding executive and the culture a lot of bad habits.

To survive the stress-fest of middle management, many young leaders learn to suppress their intuitive judgments about taking time to deal with their stress. They gloss over developing their people skills in favor of developing technical skills. They naturally seek the lower-stress option of working with people like them and become blind to their personal biases (the ones preventing them from building diversity, cognitive or otherwise, into their team dynamic).

The unintended consequences of this Hard Knocks Leadership School are that the larger corporate culture around middle management takes on the same low tolerances for personal stress management, emotional intelligence and diversity.

By the time the survivors are lifted into the executive ranks, a lot of the damage is done. Many executives believe that few people skills, low tolerance for diversity and a poor stress management is integral to their personal success, and thus the success of the business.

Before you know it, the corporate culture simply perpetuates these values no matter how many thoughtful articles try to convince them that these are the very things that drive down their employee engagement (and drive up their employee turnover costs).

Do we really expect “leadership” from our middle managers?

There is one other factor I notice, which is that my executive clients are more often given permission to deal with their stress and poor leadership habits on the company’s time and at the company’s expense. Unlike many executives, middle managers are less likely to be afforded the opportunity to use company time and money to engage in leadership development.

I believe this is because while an executive is often held accountable for establishing a “leadership presence,” in a middle manager, this important quality is more of a nice-to-have. For middle managers there seems to be an unspoken assumption that those who can emerge from the depths of the crucible fire with any kind of ‘presence’ must be better leaders.

While coaching and other in-depth forms of leadership development are certainly an investment, the dearth of middle management level coaching programs puzzles me. It’s almost as though middle managers are leadership development stepchildren, their importance to the company’s culture and employee satisfaction chronically underappreciated and underfunded.

This problem has dogged me since I began coaching, not only because of the impact better middle managers can have on the culture of an organization, but also because my clients in the middle seem to soak up the benefits of coaching so much more deeply than many executives.

Executives have often incorporated their habits (bad and good) into their professional identities, while middle managers are at a more malleable point in their leadership journey, more apt to experiment and change their personal styles.

Seeking better ways to bring coaching-quality leadership development to middle management, I’ve been exploring strategies for group coaching to mitigate the costs of bringing executive coaching to middle management, and have discovered some formulas for success.

However, there’s more to a culture shift than affordability. If we want our culture to value reduced stress, people skills and diversity, then we must look at the kind of leadership development programs that can produce these values, because defaulting to the School of Hard Knocks won’t cut it.


Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Coaching. An executive coach and change management thought leader, Dana Theus cracks the code on personal power in the workplace. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations bring emotional intelligence coaching services to middle management. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to subscribe.