Lucy Kellaway: Eliminating miserable middle management may be a mercy killing, not a crime

The Second Machine Age was the “Wow” book in Davos this year in which authors Erik Brynnjoffson and Andy McAfee explained how articifical intelligence was taking over many jobs prevously though to be humans only. Including driving cars in heavy traffic. At one of their sessions, an audience member asked the duo that given their view of the future what was the worst job to be in. “A middle ambitious, middle manager,” Andy replied, adding that this species was likely to become extinct. Not a moment too soon. Judging by Lucy Kellaway’s column this week, killing them off would be more like a mercy killing than punishment. – AH

By Lucy Kellaway

The FT's top columnist, Lucy Kellaway
The FT’s top columnist, Lucy Kellaway

Not long ago, thousands of workers in the US were asked if they fancied the idea of being promoted to the rank of manager. You might have thought they would mostly have said yes. After all, the US is supposed to be the land of opportunity and the entirety of corporate life is founded on the principle that it is better to be on a higher rung of the ladder than on a lower one.

Only they did not say yes at all. A mere third of the workers canvassed by CareerBuilder said being a manager appealed to them. The remaining two-thirds said no thanks, I’d rather stick with the lowly job I have.

Within the numbers were some depressingly predictable variations. For instance, 40 per cent of men wanted to be promoted, against only 29 per cent of women. Less predictably, gays and lesbians turned out to be more ambitious than most, with 44 per cent of LGBT workers wanting to be leaders. I’ve no idea what this proves, except perhaps that having had some success in rolling back homophobia, they are in an optimistic mood.

So why don’t most people want to be managers? More than half of them explained they liked the job they had and therefore saw no reason to change it. This strikes me as an excellent reason. Given that the pyramid is at its widest at the bottom, it is good if lots of people are happy to keep on keeping on. It is only a shame that we are so hooked on the idea of progress, we place so little value on lives spent like this.

About a third of the sample said what put them off were the long hours and the responsibility that went with being a manager – which is also fair enough.

A smaller minority did not want to put themselves up for promotion because they did not have the qualifications. This is the only bad reason given – it is a shame and a waste. There are lots of things that stop people from becoming great managers, but the lack of formal qualifications is hardly ever one of them.

Implicit in all this is a truth that companies try to keep quiet about. Being a middle manager is the most thankless job ever invented. Workers are not idiots – they look at what the people above them are doing, and think: no way.

If anyone still clings to the fantasy that it is going to be nice to be a middle manager, a big study written up last week on the Harvard Business Review website, puts the record straight. It looked at companies that together employ 320,000 workers, and examined the profile of the least happy 5 per cent of them.

The researchers expected to find that these 16,000 miserable workers were mostly downtrodden foot soldiers, or misunderstood cranky geniuses, or the hopelessly incompetent who could be sacked at any minute.

Instead they found the typical profile of the terminally miserable was rather different. They were mostly middle performing, middle managers. They were the ones who were doing perfectly fine and had been working in the company for five to 10 years. In other words, they ought to have been the salt of the earth, or at least the glue that holds the company together.

These managers gave a litany of reasons for their misery: they felt under-appreciated, overworked, not listened to, stuck and full of a sense of meaninglessness. But most of all they complained that the people above them were not up to much.

So what can be done? The authors of the survey blandly conclude that it is all a matter of leadership.

“Every employee deserves a good leader,” they say.

Well yes, but everyone deserves all sorts of things in life that they often do not get, including good health, freedom of speech and three meals a day.

Most of us are not going to get good leadership and, even if we did, it would not help those in the middle very much. Almost all companies are necessarily dysfunctional, and the place that dysfunction hurts most is half way up.

Of the people I know who detest their jobs most, all are stuck in this position. It is their job to implement bad decisions made by others. It is their job to take responsibility for things that are not their fault. They can neither move up, nor move back down. They are more buffeted by storms of office politics than anyone else. It is not pretty.

The true problem is not at the top. It is at the bottom. It is how you persuade decent, hardworking people that it is worth trying to advance. Given how bad the journey upward looks, it is no surprise that the people who embark on it and emerge victorious at the top are so often bent out of shape. Meanwhile some of the people who might have fared better at the top remain at the bottom, having wisely declined to climb at all.

* Lucy Kellway is a columnist with The Financial Times of London. Reach her at [email protected] or twitter: @lucykellaway

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited

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