Your Middle Managers are Getting a Bum Rap

Middle managers are perhaps the most maligned individuals in the corporate world. Most view them as roadblocks whose sole purpose is to prevent efficiency or innovation. And when business consultants come in, middle managers are the first to go.

At Hogan, we think middle managers get a bum rap. Rather than the useless bureaucrats they are made out to be, middle managers can be the key to an effective organization.

A recent article on Slate illustrates my point.

If there was ever an easy example of how layers of ineffective middle managers can break down organizational effectiveness, it’s the U.S. government and its public-facing agencies (think the IRS, the passport office, etc.). Five minutes in the DMV is all it takes to send the most levelheaded among us into a white-hot rage.

But a recent article titled “The Most Efficient Office in the World” describes a Manhattan passport office that not only received rave reviews from the authors’ friend, a management consultant, but from the general public as well (the site has a startling 4.5 stars on Yelp).

What is the secret to this lowly agency’s runaway customer satisfaction? Its manager, Michael Hoffman:

[Hoffman] faces the same combination of constraints that many middle managers in the corporate world do. He has to deal with some amount of standardization… [and] he receives visits from his supervisors at the State Department and the regional passport headquarters, who evaluate him based on performance metrics like cost savings and the rate at which passport applications are processed.

But Hoffman also has a great deal of discretion in how the place is run: the layout of the various waiting rooms, the particular queues that move people through the application process (Hoffman has chosen four: one for appointments, one for walk-ins, a special-requests line, and one for applicants with complicated cases), and the color of the walls (they’re currently a dull institutional blue; he’s planning on painting them a cheerier yellow). And it’s his job to motivate and manage his workforce. He promotes high-performing agents and disciplines—or in extreme instances even fires—lower-performing ones. He’s been given enough autonomy within the context of a federal bureaucracy to make the passport experience in New York terrible or fantastic, and… Hoffman, a modest and unassuming mid-level bureaucrat with a fondness for baseball, has just done a great job of using his power to make the office run really well.

If Hoffman can take a model of inefficiency and turn it into a place of which people are at least tolerant, imagine what a manger of his caliber could do with the resources of a private corporation.

Want more information on mid-level managers? Check out our latest ebook, Four ways you’re failing you’re middle managers, and why it’s killing innovation.