The Frozen Middle: the Plight of the
Middle Manager

Eric Ciechanowski
By Eric Ciechanowski
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Last Updated: July 1, 2020
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Middle management is a broad term for professionals who operate under the executives in a company, but over associate or junior level management. These professionals are often tasked with carrying out strategies and direction from upper-level management but aren’t involved in the creation of those initiatives from the company. If the direction handed down to them is misunderstood, the middle manager may be less effective at carrying out the goals of the executives leading to something called the frozen middle.

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The frozen middle is the term used to describe the role that middle management plays in company progress when initiatives are handed down and they slow in the middle. Many companies see this as a problem with their middle managers, but it is often due to poor communication and exclusion from the executives in a company. When upper-level management decides to carry out the strategy, they will either comprise a memo or report to hand down to their middle management. In this direction, the goals may be miscommunicated or the strategies may be implausible. If the middle manager doesn’t understand the purpose or execution of the idea, they will not carry out the plan as effectively as the executives planned and no change occurs.

This situation can impact company growth and cause tremendous frustration for middle management. So what can a middle manager do if they find themselves in the frozen middle? frozen-middle-definition

Are You in the Frozen Middle?

The frozen middle can be a tricky place to be for middle managers. You might feel ineffective, unsupported and even stuck in your career. If you feel like you may be stuck in the frozen middle, ask yourself these questions:
  • Do I feel like my voice is being heard?
  • When was the last time I contributed to the long term success of my company?
  • Do you feel that you have support when enacting a directive?
  • Do you receive feedback that you are under performing?
If you are feeling unheard, undervalued, unsupported and receive negative feedback, there is a good chance that you are stuck in the frozen middle. Though it is easiest to thaw the frozen middle from the top down, with better communication and leadership from executives, that isn’t always possible. If you find yourself stuck in the frozen middle, try these tips to thaw the situation.

How to Thaw the Frozen Middle

Though most of this work needs to be done in upper-level management, middle management can initiate this change by providing constructive upward feedback and implementing good leadership practices. Here are a few other ways you can begin to defrost a frozen system:

1. Identify Communication Gaps

Communication gaps exist in every area of business. One way to uncover communication gaps is to ask both your manager and your direct report questions about their understanding of company goals. Evaluate their answers to see if any misunderstandings exist.

2. Align With Your Company

According to a recent Gallup poll, only 34% of U.S. workers are engaged and 13% actively disengaged. These numbers mean that the majority of workers are disengaged at work. As a manager, show your direct reports that you are engaged by getting involved with the culture and the mission of the company. This will allow you to communicate goals effectively and understand why upper-level management values certain initiatives.

3. Give Goal Specific Feedback

One of the best actions you can take as a middle manager stuck in the frozen middle is giving upward feedback to upper-level management. When you are confused about direction, speak with your executive supervisor, and inform them of any misunderstandings that are taking place. When you provide this feedback, outline constructive goals. According to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, performance will only improve when critiques have goals and solutions. Without them, they are just complaints.

4. Ask For Upward Feedback

Upward feedback from your direct reports is just as important as feedback from you to your supervisor. This will initiate open lines of communication throughout the company so that miscommunications can be spotted before they impact productivity. In fact, a recent study found that leaders who ask for feedback are almost 6x as effective as those that don’t.

5. Carry Change With You

As you work your way up the ladder in your career, use your experience to defrost the frozen middle from the top-down. The skills that you develop from improving as a middle manager will only make you a better executive, ensuring that the frozen middle stays thawed wherever you go.

Between the criticism from upper management and the lack of direction from those under you, the frozen middle can be a tough spot to be in. To thaw this icy problem, stay informed about what the frozen middle is, spot communication gaps, and keep your manager and direct reports up to speed.
frozen-middle-infographic If you have found yourself stuck in the frozen middle, use these tips to thaw the issues from the bottom up. If you see changes, add these things to your resume. Solving company-wide issues will make you a better manager and a more effective team member. The frozen middle may be the plight of middle managers but with effective communication and leadership, those issues can defrost and progress can resume.