But now, the tables have turned as companies begin to feel the negative impact in terms of company growth and loss of talent. More bosses have recognised that middle managers will play an increasingly important role as the economy recovers.
Strategically, middle managers act as ambassadors between senior leadership and the rest of the company, enabling the organisation to run smoothly.
Elmar Kronz, vice-president (Asia) of Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global human resources consulting firm, says mid-level leaders are "shock absorbers", as they take pressure from the top and bottom.
Kronz says the changing business environment in recent years has meant companies needed to create new career opportunities and focus resources on developing the so-called young, high-potentials and executives at the expense of nurturing mid-level leaders.
According to a recent McKinsey study, 64 per cent of mid-level managers do not expect to be with their organisation two years from now. This negative sentiment seems to be mutual, as demonstrated by a DDI leadership forecast last year, indicating that only about one-third of the 13,700 leaders surveyed had a high degree of confidence in mid-level leaders' ability to meet their business goals. Kronz says poorly developed, or non-existent, middle management will make strategy execution difficult or impossible for organisations, especially in an emerging economy such as the mainland, with many expatriate leaders.
"Mid-level leaders need to be the connectors between corporate strategy and local strategy," Kronz says, adding that the situation needs to be corrected urgently.
"There is a systemic issue of companies not having built a healthy pipeline. They have not developed their leaders at all levels and are now scrambling to fill these roles with experienced and skilled leaders."
Matthew Hill, managing director of Ambition (Hong Kong), warns that companies neglecting their middle managers run the risk of losing out on several fronts.
Staff turnover will increase, resulting in the loss of company information and seriously affecting continuity. This can also affect the level of confidence in the company.
He says this could also result in poorer than expected growth and targets may not be met. In addition, there will be negative public perception of the business, making it difficult to recruit or retain talent.
Hill believes many firms have suddenly realised that they should value their middle managers more, following high staff turnover and increasing demands for rewards other than money to enhance job satisfaction.
"These days, employees are more interested than ever before in training and development, as well as work-life balance," he says.
- Motivate staff with regular face-to-face meetings
- Expose middle managers to top management to understand the business
- Create individual development plans
- Move people laterally if upward mobility is difficult
- Offer on-the-job learning, mentoring and formal training
- Give targets to achieve and reward appropriately