The Breaking Point for Middle Managers

Already tasked with enforcing new office and productivity edicts, a growing number are getting laid off, docked pay, or demoted. Why is there a target on their backs?

It’s been a tried-and-true corporate strategy since the 1980s. If layoffs need to be done, fire the middle managers. They’re the group responsible, in the minds of many executives, when an organization becomes inefficient.

True to form, the rounds of restructurings recently announced in technology, logistics, and other industries have targeted corporate midsections. But experts warn that removing too many middle managers—and putting too much pressure on those that remain—can jeopardize many corporate priorities, such as innovation and diversity initiatives. “This layoff season means so much. It’s existential, and it potentially opens up a Pandora’s box of problems,” says Chris Cantarella, Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Global Technology Markets practice.

Over the past few months, during a wave of layoffs that swept through the technology industry, thousands of midlevel managers were pink-slipped. Logistics firms say they’ve eliminated some director and officer roles in hopes of becoming more “agile,” and finance firms are culling midlevel bankers. The cuts aren’t just to head count, either. One tech firm is reducing the salaries of its middle managers by 5%. Another is asking many of its managers either to transition to individual-contributor jobs or leave the company.

Many companies went on hiring sprees over the past two years in order to capitalize on business trends accelerated by the pandemic. Now that some of those trends have subsided, some organizations find they haven’t effectively deployed their employees and must make cuts to preserve profit margins.

But experts worry middle managers have taken a disproportionate share of blame. A recent survey by think tank Future Forum found that workers in middle management are the most exhausted employees at any level of an organization. Some 43% say they’re burned out. Yet it’s middle managers who are being asked to implement new diversity initiatives, productivity drives, and return-to-office policies. And it’s middle managers who have to field complaints from both their direct reports and their bosses if these projects don’t go smoothly. Such challenges, along with managers’ usual day-to-day activities, have been made even more difficult, experts say, by hybrid environments and a lack of regular face-to-face interaction.

Managers are also under pressure to master certain skill sets: many organizations feel that their mid-tier leaders lack needed abilities, digital knowledge in particular. “The expectation for middle managers is to be data savvy, able to draw conclusions and insights from more information, and react quickly,” says Melissa Hadhazy, advisory leader within Korn Ferry’s Industrial team. Indeed, in an upcoming Korn Ferry survey, 51% of organizations say their middle management has a digital-engagement gap—an inability to use technology to maximize business effectiveness.

Experts say that firms can improve the situation of midlevel managers by giving them mentors and leadership-development training. Leaders can also free up their midlevel managers’ time by investing in technology that handles administrative tasks such as data analysis or workflow approvals. Kristi Drew, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account leader in the firm’s Financial Services practice, says some of her clients are giving managers new work experiences in order to challenge them. “Too many managers have been growing only in their own silos,” she says.


For more information, contact Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice.