My comments on Bad Company: The Cult of the CEO by Gideon Haigh have just been published in Quarterly Essay along with a response by Haigh. He argues that a focus on managerialism as an expression of the interests of the managerial class/caste as a whole is out of date because there’s now a cleavage interests between top managers and ‘middle managers’.
This got me thinking that although the phrase ‘middle managers’ is used a lot, I don’t know what it really means. In the large organisations I’ve worked in, people could be classified into three main groups. There are the people who actually do the work, the managers who tell people what to do and a group in-between, consisting of skilled and experienced workers who supervise others.
Sometimes the dividing lines are fairly sharp and sometimes not, but there’s usually a pretty clear line separating the managers proper from everybody else. In the public service, for example, the dividing line is generally provided by the boundary between the Senior Executive Service and what used to be called the Third Division.
What isn’t clear to me is whether the term ‘middle managers’ applies to the intermediate group I’ve described or (as Haigh implies) to managers other than CEOs and those in their immediate circle.
In debating things like managerialism, the two interpretations have radically different implications. I would certainly agree that the last decade has been a pretty miserable one for people in my worker-supervisor category. On the other hand, as David Gordon pointed out in Fat and Mean the idea that the corporate sector moved to slimmed-down management and flat organizations in the 1990s is a myth. Gordon was writing in 1996, but the dotcom boom was characterized by even more proliferation of management to the point where some firms had more vice-presidents than programmers.