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Why middle management is so exhausting, and what to do about it

February 2, 2022 - 21 min read

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What is the role of middle management?

What does middle management do?

What skills do middle managers need?

Why is middle management so stressful?

How to thrive in middle management

How middle managers can leverage technology

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If you're in middle management, which of these statements best describes you?

  1. You encourage team members to do their best and cultivate relationships with peers. You also influence the direction of the organization by achieving your goals.
  2. You're drowning in endless meetings and emails and wading through a sea of communications and processes. And this is all while hearing out the worries of your stressed-out team while trying to smile and remain positive.

Perhaps both of these resonate with you. But chances are, either way, you're feeling the stress as a middle manager.

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What is the role of middle management?

Middle managers bridge the gap between individual contributors and upper management as they connect and convey. These key connectors are more important than ever as companies try to be agile and adaptable.

But these roles are changing. Middle managers are often asked to take on extra functions, including a coach, a role model, and a talent developer.

What does middle management do?

Middle managers wear many hats. From holding employee review cycles to overseeing team budgets - middle managers have a hand in each aspect of their team's day-to-day. 

The priorities differ by company. But these are some responsibilities a middle manager will likely own.

  • Communicating company updates. Many companies take a top-down approach to communication. This structure puts middle managers in a critical spot when updating their team on company changes. The organization might be acquired, downsizing, or adjusting its vision. Each example is something a middle manager could be responsible for telling their team.
  • Setting and striving for team goals. A middle manager will likely get their goals from senior leadership. And they should feed into the organization's overall objectives. A middle manager is also in charge of setting their team's goals. These can be a variety of business goals and specific professional goals for each individual. And, since middle managers are stakeholders in these goals, they are also responsible for supporting the team to achieve them.
  • Providing employee feedback. Middle managers often structure feedback processes. In addition to regular one-on-one meetings, these managers also set up annual performance reviews. They'll review employee performance, satisfaction, and goals during these meetings.
  • Supporting employee growth. Closely linked to employee feedback, middle managers also support employee growth. This support can be in training new employees or those looking to learn new skills. 
  • Organizational changes within their team. Hiring and firing employees is another part of a middle manager's job. They help review job descriptions and are often part of the interview process for new employees. They may also have to have difficult conversations with underperforming employees.
  • Budget planning. When budgeting, a middle manager usually looks at the team's tools and other expenses directly related to their team. Though connected, a middle manager is not usually in charge of budget planning for the larger organization.
  • Overseeing day-to-day operations within their team. Middle managers are at the helm of their team. So they are there to ensure each individual has the resources they need to get their work done.
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What skills do middle managers need?

People always have room to develop and grow, both personally and professionally. Here are some key competencies that may help you excel in a middle management role.

Communication

Communication skills are among the most important for managers to master. Make sure team members know the expectations and how their work contributes to the team's goals. 

Ask, "What do you think you're doing well? What would make your performance even better?" Listen closely, and explore anything that needs adjustment. Get feedback from your team on your communication skills so you know where you need to focus and improve.

Accountability

Learn to hold yourself and your team members accountable. For example, if you notice poor performance, deal with it early and note that you have some concerns. But assure the team that you want to be supportive. 

Start from a place of curiosity, empathy, and understanding. But do not assume the issue will go away or get better on its own. Remember that one person's poor performance can negatively impact an entire team. It's your role as the manager to intervene. 

Rope in your manager or your human resources team if you need help. It can be draining to manage these conversations on your own.

Time and energy management

Increase your self-awareness so that you can take notice of how you're feeling throughout the day. 

Which activities give you the most energy, and why? Do they challenge you? Are you good at them? Do they help you feel fulfilled? 

On the flip side, what interactions leave you feeling drained, and what's the cause of that? Do you dread specific tasks or struggle to focus in certain meetings? For instance, if you're low on energy toward the end of the day and unable to listen during a meeting, see if you can move the meeting earlier in the day. 

Unlearning

Many middle managers are promoted based on their skills as individual contributors. And they often attempt to do their original role with their management work on top. This is a recipe for exhaustion. 

Managers must re-train themselves to focus instead on the expectations of their new role. They can then work to maximize the capabilities of their teams to meet their goals.

Big-picture thinking

A crucial role of the middle manager is to harness the contributions of the team to achieve the organization's goals. So, you need to understand and believe in the bigger vision to translate it into your team's work.

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Why is middle management so stressful?

Nearly a fifth of managers and supervisors report signs of depression. And Gallup's research shows that “managers report more stress and burnout, worse work-life balance, and worse physical well-being than the individual contributors on the teams they lead.” 

But why exactly are middle managers so stressed? Here are some of the top contributors:

Burdened by administrative tasks

You may have noticed the laundry list of responsibilities middle managers have. As their roles grow and they get more responsibility, they're often still in charge of various administrative tasks.

Onboarding new employees and submitting requests for new team tools takes time. Then stack this on top of the daily interpersonal tasks a middle manager has on their to-do list. Everything together can drain an individual's time and energy. And leave them feeling burned out and unaccomplished at the end of the day.

Swamped with meetings

Speaking of time - middle managers often have a lot of meetings. More specifically, middle managers spend 35% of their time in meetings. That leaves them with just over half of their time left to dedicate to other tasks. Additionally, in this new normal of remote work, Zoom fatigue is real. Between the cognitive load of communicating via video, and being stuck in your seat for the majority of the day, it's no wonder that middle managers are burning out.

Lack of professional development

Some middle managers get stuck in limbo. They are no longer entry-level employees, but they aren't senior or upper management either. This situation has two issues: lack of opportunity and lack of time.

Some middle managers don't have the opportunity or leadership development needed to advance in their careers. Other managers simply do not have the time to develop skills outside of their current role. The result is middle managers stuck in an intense position without a roadmap for moving forward.

Often caught in the middle

This "caught in the middle" feeling also extends to communication processes. Middle managers have to communicate company goals and strategic changes to their team. But it can be challenging to get everyone on the same page.

Middle managers may have to handle backlash and pushback from lower-level employees. But, given their position in the organizational structure, their hands are often tied. The middle manager's role here is a messenger, so they cannot compromise or meet employees in the middle.

Undervalued

Have you ever started a role, and after the initial ramp-up period, you get asked to take on an additional task? And then another task gets added to your plate. And before you know it, you're 6-months in, and your role looks completely different from when you started.

This is often the case for middle managers. Their roles grow, but it's hard to see where to draw the line since the tasks come in piecemeal.

Alternatively, middle managers understand their role from the beginning. But since their responsibilities are so crucial for the team's success, their day-to-day work goes unnoticed. It's not until they surpass a goal that they receive recognition.

Benefits of supporting middle management well-being

The benefits of feeling good at work cannot be understated. Emotions are contagious, and you set the tone for the rest of your team. If you're feeling burnt out, unmotivated, and unhappy, your whole team will suffer. But if you're feeling engaged, productive, and happy, that can extend to your team and give them a boost. 

Research shows that managers have the most substantial influence on an employee's experience. There's a ripple effect outward from every manager. For example, BetterUp research shows that highly-resilient managers have more resilient, innovative teams. These teams also function with lower burnout and greater agility. 

Similarly, managers who work with purpose feel more meaning, work-life balance, and satisfaction.

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How to thrive in middle management

Middle management is not without its challenges. But there are many things you can do to overcome them and truly thrive in your role.

Middle management is not without its challenges. But there are many things you can do to overcome them and truly thrive in your role.

  1. Have regular check-ins. Check in regularly with your team members and with your manager. Agree on the qualities you want in your working relationship and how you'll work together. For example, "If I get behind with a deadline, I'll let you know as soon as I can." Decide how often to meet. Some people may prefer a shorter, ad-hoc slot, and others may need a more predictable schedule. 
  2. Empower your team members. When your team members come to you for help, ask them, "What do you think you should do?" Gone are the days where management was all-knowing, and employees were just the "do-ers." Cultivate a culture where your team members trust themselves. Let them know that you support their decision-making process. In turn, you'll encourage them to think for themselves and make decisions independently. 
  3. Pay attention to both tasks and relationships. You may prefer getting things done but have less time to build relationships. Or you may love the people side of the job over your outcomes and achievements. Give both equal weight—they are both needed for success.
  4. Help direct reports overcome challenges. Traditional management practices look at how to help an individual succeed. But by taking a systems view, you may be able to pave the way for everyone's work to be easier. For example, if your team likes to collaborate across departments, you can help them work together. A crucial part of your role is to create the optimal conditions for people to do their best work and then get out of their way.
  5. Find a coach or mentor. Middle management can be a lonely place. It's easy to absorb the worries, stress, and challenges experienced by your team. But this internalization can negatively impact your well-being. Having an objective person to serve as a sounding board can help you process your thoughts.
  6. Get good at hiring. Each new hire shapes the future of your work and your team dynamic. Think about the skills, values, and impact you want to see in the future. Then design your interview process to evaluate each candidate with this in mind. Try using skills assessments and behavioral interviewing questions. They can provide insight into a candidate's future performance. 
  7. Respect your team's bandwidth. Take care not to over-burden your team. For example, top-level management asks your team to take on an additional project. It's best to consider your available resources and current commitments. How much time does your team really have? You may need to reprioritize, request a longer timeline, or push back on the request to protect your team.
  8. Take time for learning. Create space for ongoing education. That could mean enhancing your management skills or learning about new topics around your specialty. Consider doing this in a group environment, like a class or company-wide certification. Learning with other managers will give you different perspectives and build your network of peers. 
  9. Take care of yourself. Eat lunch, have short breaks, and stay hydrated. Looking after your body and mind will help you feel more energized, refreshed, and engaged.
  10. Create healthy boundaries. Make sure you have healthy boundaries with your working day. And don't let work consistently bleed over into your home life and downtime. You might need to take the occasional after-hours call, but try not to make it a habit. The world may run 24/7, but you cannot.
 
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How middle managers can leverage technology

Technology can be a powerful tool when it comes to feeling balanced and calm in a middle management role.

  1. Consider project management software. Tools like Jira, Asana, or a shared whiteboard on Miro can allow team members to track their work with transparency. Tools like these can help you see where projects might be getting stuck, manage capacity, and plan for the future. By creating a shared space, your one-on-one conversations won't turn into status updates. Additionally, you'll have a clear idea of who's doing what and how you're tracking against your goals.
  2. Enable shorter meetings on your calendar. Some calendaring tools, like Gmail, have a setting to end 30-minute meetings 5 minutes early and longer meetings 10 minutes early. Giving yourself this leeway between meetings means that you can prepare between activities—or have a quick break. Also, consider your ideal weekly schedule. Would you prefer to have a mix of activities on any given day? Or does it serve you to do specific types of work on certain days so that you may reduce the inefficiency of context switching?
  3. Set focus time. Tools like Outlook can automatically schedule Focus Time for unscheduled blocks on your calendar. These can give you the time you need to reflect, plan, and prioritize. Be wary of people trying to book meetings over these slots. By saying yes to other people's preferred times, you're essentially putting their needs ahead of yours. This is not to suggest that you decline all meeting requests. But being assertive in requesting another time can help you create the space you need to be a good manager.
  4. Enable collaboration: Middle managers are responsible for helping their teams work together to meet shared goals. Implement tools that enable your team to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas. Such tools can help them solve problems for themselves. Use an asynchronous chat tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams, where anyone in the team can respond. 
  5. Use data. Set up reporting to tell the story of your team's work through meaningful data. Use design processes that minimize the time you spend creating and formatting information. This way, you'll have more time to analyze the results and make meaning out of the data.
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Final thoughts on middle management

Being the bridge from strategic vision to operational detail is part of the crucial work of middle management. Ensuring that you are strong, connected, and supported will help you withstand stress and ensure your team's work flows smoothly. Most importantly, it will mean that you feel happier and more able to enjoy the great responsibility and honor of helping other people be their best at work.
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Published February 2, 2022

Meg Lyons, PCC

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

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