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Understanding middle management roles

A middle manager leads a staff meeting

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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This article has been reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

At a glance

This article was updated on 01/25/2024.

Nestled just below the C-suite, middle managers are responsible for making sure that their business or organization operates smoothly and efficiently. They act as the go-between, relaying messages from upper-level management to departments and first-line managers. 

While middle management may seem like an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to some, middle managers hold key roles within organizations. Here, we’ll explore the managerial hierarchy, useful skills for middle managers and what challenges they face.

Learn in-demand business skills with a Bachelor of Science in Business. 

What is middle management?

Middle management occupies the space between executive-level managers and first-line managers. Middle managers have a vast range of responsibilities, but most importantly, they communicate the goals of upper management to front-line employees and ensure those goals are met. In many cases, middle managers are also responsible for training and development, as well as performance management.

How middle manager roles are evolving (and what that means for business)

The role of middle management is evolving as organizations seek to become more agile and responsive. In recent years, there has been a shift from traditional hierarchical structures with middle managers given more authority and responsibility. This plays a crucial role in a company’s bottom line, because middle managers are closer to front-line employees than executives and have a better understanding of their needs.

Here we speak with Joseph Aranyosi, associate dean of the College of Business and Information Technology at University of Phoenix, about contemporary work environments and middle managers.

“Contemporary work environments are rapidly evolving, and have seen the transition to virtual workforces, a renewed focus on quality of life issues, and the use of artificial intelligence and other technology to complete common work tasks,” Aranyosi says. “Consequently, there’s a need for middle managers to be more adaptive than ever to support employees through change management, respond to issues quickly and effectively, and make value-driven business decisions.”

Middle managers are necessary facilitators of communication and employee growth within organizations. Without them, a company would struggle to function.

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The three levels of managerial hierarchy

There are three traditional levels of management: top level, middle level and first line. This is often known as the managerial hierarchy. Each level has a different focus and set of responsibilities.

Top-level management

C-suite executives oversee company strategy and usually have a broad perspective on the company and its position in the industry. With this comes the responsibility of setting goals and objectives that employees must accomplish. These goals trickle down until they reach front-line employees.

Generally, top-level management positions handle big-picture items, such as:

  • Company vision and strategy
  • Long-term planning
  • Resource allocation
  • Corporate policies

While top-level management encompasses many titles, some of the most common are:

  • Chief executive officer (CEO)
  • Chief operating officer (COO)
  • Chief financial officer (CFO)
  • Chief information officer (CIO)
  • President
  • Vice president (VP)

It’s crucial for top-level managers to have extensive industry experience and a deep understanding of business. Most top-level executives have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but many also hold an MBA or other advanced degree, like a Doctor of Management.

Aside from experience and education, top-level managers also need strategic-thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills.

Mid-level management

Middle management, also known as executory management, refers to the layer of managers between senior executives and first-line managers. Middle managers are responsible for carrying out the decisions made by upper management and ensuring the directives are executed.

Middle managers typically have a broad range of responsibilities, which vary depending on the size and structure of an organization. In small organizations, middle managers may be responsible for all day-to-day operations, such as planning, budgeting and staffing. In larger organizations, middle managers may be responsible for specific functions or departments, such as human resources, marketing or sales.

According to Indeed, some of the most common responsibilities of middle managers are:

  • Supervising and training first-line managers
  • Coordinating work between departments
  • Developing and implementing operational plans
  • Monitoring progress toward business and department objectives
  • Communicating between top-level executives and first-line managers
  • Setting sales or operational goals for departments
  • Resolving conflicts between employees

Common job titles for middle managers include:

Middle managers often hold a bachelor’s degree, although some jobs require a management master’s degree, depending on the industry. Other educational options include an undergraduate management certificate, which can help you learn critical skills for your role as a general or operations manager.

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First-line management

Though first-line managers, also known as front-line or supervisory managers, are one of the lower management levels in an organization. First-line managers directly supervise front-line employees and ensure they complete their tasks on time and to standards.

Some of the most common responsibilities of first-line managers are:

  • Hiring and training employees
  • Setting work schedules
  • Assigning tasks and responsibilities
  • Enforcing company policies

Common job titles for first-line managers include:

  • Supervisor
  • Team leader
  • Floor manager
  • Shift manager

Most organizations require a high school diploma to qualify for a first-line management position. In some circumstances, however, industry experience may suffice. For example, someone who has worked their way up from being a barista to a store manager at a coffee shop would likely not need a formal education to qualify for the position.

However, a first-line management position in other industries, such as healthcare, may require at least a bachelor’s degree. In other cases, a bachelor’s degree in management may be an option for employees to enhance their skills to move into management roles.

Aranyosi shares: “The more specialized the manager’s role or industry, the more likely there will be a need to obtain higher degrees to qualify for promotional opportunities. While experience and certification can help in many areas, most employers are looking for candidates who can demonstrate the long-term commitment and responsibility that are required to successfully complete a degree program.”

What are the benefits of middle management?

Middle management plays a vital role in ensuring that an organization operates smoothly. Without middle managers, upper management would be bogged down by day-to-day tasks, and front-line employees would struggle to know how to prioritize tasks and may lack the necessary support to succeed in their role.

Because middle managers are often intentionally hired to improve business functions, they bring important skills and advantages to their employers. These managerial skills include:

  • Problem-solving: Middle managers handle everything from staffing issues to conflict resolution.
  • Employee engagement: Middle managers use positive reinforcement (such as recognition and rewards) or negative reinforcement (such as disciplinary action) to engage and motivate employees.
  • Organizational knowledge: Drawing from a deep understanding of the organization, its structure and its culture, middle management provides a valuable perspective when making decisions or solving problems.
  • Network building: Middle managers often have a vast network of contacts within the organization. This can be helpful when troubleshooting issues or identifying new opportunities.
  • Communication: Middle managers facilitate the easy flow of information between different levels of the organization.
  • Interpersonal skills: Because their job requires them to work with people at all levels of the organization, the best middle managers possess strong interpersonal skills.

What challenges does middle management face?

While middle managers play an essential role in organizations, research has shown that some of them experience lower levels of job satisfaction than top-level executives. 

Several factors contribute to this phenomenon, including how middle managers are often caught between executives and lower-level employees. This can put them in an uncomfortable position when it comes to interpersonal relationships at work: Lower-level employees may view middle managers as “the boss” and keep them at arm’s length, while executives may not recognize their contributions.  

Also, because their job involves a lot of problem-solving, they may carry out tasks that both groups dislike, such as completing an audit, which can be tedious and time-consuming but necessary. In addition, middle managers may feel that they aren’t given enough authority to make decisions or that senior management doesn’t adequately recognize their efforts. This can lead to frustration and delayed turnaround if middle managers are constantly having to seek approval before completing or assigning tasks.

Aranyosi explains: “Although middle manager roles can sometimes be frustrating, they also provide invaluable, practical experience that can be used to hone operational, supervisory and problem-solving skills. Remember that most C-suite leaders worked their way up through middle management, so it’s a great way to learn about business needs, polish your skills and build confidence in your ability to lead others. Think of it as a stepping stone toward advancement in your business career.”

Management programs at a University of Phoenix

We offer a variety of degree and certificate options that can enhance your education or work experience. Starting from a certificate and going all the way up to a doctoral degree in management, there are options for those at every stage in their management career.

If roles in middle management interest you, discover how an online business degree from University of Phoenix can help you build skills to prepare for opportunities. Options include:

  • Associate of Arts with a concentration in Business Fundamentals From management to accounting, skills learned in this program are essential for anyone looking to build an educational foundation in business.  
  • Bachelor of Science in Business Knowledge of the ins and outs of running a business can spell the difference between success and failure in a competitive business world.  
  • Bachelor of Science in Management — In the online business management bachelor’s degree, you’ll build career-relevant skills to become a better business manager. Learn what it takes to improve and optimize organizational effectiveness and productivity in a dynamic and evolving workplace. Develop and apply career-relevant skills in a practical way with coursework in leadership, operations and logistics, project management and strategic management — all of which can help you align resources, improve communication and make key decisions in various industries. 
  • Master of Business Administration Prepare for higher leadership roles in an organization. This degree program can prepare graduates for careers as business managers, operations directors and more. 
  • Master of Management Take your understanding of business organization and management to an advanced level. This degree program is perfect for those with experience in the workforce who are looking to take on greater leadership roles.  
  • Doctor of Business Administration Expand your understanding of organizations, work environments and industry. This program invites participants to delve into cutting-edge research in the field of business and develop skills for solving complex organizational problems. 

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