Guest AuthorMahalingam

In the grip of a ‘mridangam syndrome’

Source |Business Line – C Mahalingam

First published in Business Line print edition dated October 10, 2011

Caught between senior managers and the front-line, middle managers often feel helpless in their position.

You guessed right! We are talking about the middle managers in our organisations. They comprise a sizeable number in any organisation’s hierarchy. This tribe covers all managers except for the first-line managers and those considered senior management! It is an irony that nothing is accomplished without a motivated team of middle managers, yet the middle managers themselves feel a powerless lot. We use the analogy of the mridangam to illustrate the position of these managers, who feel beaten from both sides — by senior managers and first-line supervisors!

Middle managers make countless decisions everyday and are responsible for their execution. They keep the wheels of the organisation moving smoothly. Yet, they often feel that they are not valued in the organisation.

According to a recent Accenture study of over 1,500 middle managers:

  • they feel unsupported in managing the challenges of their daily life at work
  • are frustrated by lack of clear career paths
  • feel compelled to look outside for other opportunities

Can organisations afford to lose the engagement and energy of middle managers? Common sense dictates, no. Can middle managers themselves nurture sentiments of being unvalued or undervalued? The answer is a resounding ‘no’ as well. Wharton’s Thomas Colligan asks a thought-provoking question: “Top management can spend all their time creating strategy, but without someone to implement it, where are you at the end of the day?” A “frozen” middle management can be injurious to the health of an organisation!

Shake off the helplessness

In this article, I focus on what middle managers can themselves do to overcome their feelings of helplessness with suggestions to rise above self-doubt and inadequacy and become valued. There are at least three challenges that middle managers need to confront:

Victim syndrome: A strong feeling that they are beaten both from above and below. A career-life script that has as its central theme: “do-it-and-you-are-damned and do-not-do-it-and-you-are-damned!” The reality is no manager’s job is easy, whether high up in the ladder, in the middle rungs or lower down the order. Most senior managers feel lonely at the top, and junior folk feel they are exploited. Middle managers need to realise that their feeling of being victims is of their own creation and they have to get over these feelings themselves.

Hug or squeeze: Another psychological barrier middle managers are obsessed with is whether senior management is hugging or squeezing them when they come out in support of them. The reality again is one’s own mindset and sense of inadequacy and importance. While in some circumstances the apprehension may be valid, in most cases, it is not.

Power failure: Middle managers as a class tend to believe that their authority to determine rewards, salary increases and job changes do not carry any weight and are often overlooked. Their suggestions on plans, programmes and processes are not considered. There is, perhaps, some truth to this sentiment. Their perception of disempowerment does not help organisations. Speed of strategy implementation suffers, with middle management becoming paralysed and disenchanted.

What can middle managers do to shake off this state of helplessness and become valued members of the management? A few bold and confident initiatives can lift them out of the limbo and guide them towards valued contributions.

Time to take action

The following suggestions can help turn their fortunes around:

  • Stop wallowing in self-pity. This is possible by counting the blessings you bring to work. Your knowledge, resourcefulness, network influence and capabilities can be leveraged to rise above self-pity and bolster your self-esteem. Auto dialogue as a technique to reassure oneself can be of help. Increase your optimism quotient!
  • Explore opportunities to make a difference: In modern and complex organisations, there is no dearth of opportunities to show initiative and make a difference. There are many problems that seek creative solutions, tricky customer issues that require innovative resolution, resource challenges seeking win-win negotiations and more, which give middle managers unlimited opportunities to offer their counsel and cooperation.
  • Indulge in boundary-spanning behaviours in your organisation. Successful managers build bridges and not walls around them. They seek out help and reach out to those in need of help. They think possibilities and define their own canvas for contributions.
  • Question unproductive pretences and increase their organisational presence. They become visible in the right fora, both internally and externally, share ideas and resources. They work hard on their sense of inadequacy. They appreciate that oneness is not sameness!
  • Finally, they take responsibility. They seek out challenges and deliver on commitments and by doing so become dependable colleagues. They build a brand image as always being part of the solution and not the problem. And they do well to stay clear of gossip groups!
  • Middle managers can become exceptionally valuable and eminently promotable provided they move from mere survival to significance. In fact, most successful senior managers have gone through the difficult phase of being middle managers, but had the courage, vision and tenacity to get over the same and make a mark.


Mali(C. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at IIM)



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