Upper management are the decision makers, they give the orders everyone below is expected to follow those orders.
Think of middle management as something between an enforcer and filter. Their job is to make sure everyone they oversee is on track to accomplish whatever upper management has ordered. They also act as a buffer for suggestions, questions, etc directed to upper management. A good middle manager will spot ideas with merit and pass them up the chain while preventing other stuff from reaching upper management. (as upper management time is better spent only on items of importance)
Middle management gets a bad rep for several reasons.
- When you internally promote someone from a non-manager position to management often it's into a middle management role. This includes people with no experience managing which leads to mistakes in learning to manage, or people who are simply not the right material to manage. (AKA most likely place to find crappy or inexperienced managers)
- Middle managers typically hold more accountability than anyone in the company. If a deadline slips, product has mistakes, etc. There will be a middle manager to catch the blame. This tends to cause them to micromanage to the detriment of productivity. (Ironically causing the exact issue they're trying to prevent)
- They break the bad news. When the Board decides to withhold bonuses, require overtime, lay people off, etc. Sure they might send out a company email or hold a meeting, but it's the middle manager who actually pulls people into his office to lay them off. So even though they have little to no say in the matter, they are the people who catch the flack.
- If you have desire to get into management, getting a middle manager role is usually the first step. People reasonably successful at middle management tend to stay in those roles for a very long time. That makes it ALOT harder for others to get into those roles which prevents them from successfully pursuing roles that require management experience.
There are people who "create job security" and regularly don't perform by deflecting blame. I find the worst offenders tend to be at the bottom of the food chain typically the unmotivated person who's work is handled by the ambitious young person who feels they have something to prove.
Of coarse this trait is not exclusive to any market, position, or location. Middle managers like this tend not to survive long. Usually they can talk their way out of one blown deadline, but when you have two or three they get in trouble. Or if you have unusually high turnover under a specific manager it can cause them trouble.
This also happens in upper management, but they tend to do fine as often their job is to delegate marching orders down the pipe. Being a bit lazy there can be entirely covered by an ambitious middle manager picking up the slack.