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Why Middle Management is so Exhausting, and What to Do About It
Middle management can be exhausting at times, but it can also be quite fulfilling. This article explores how to be a better—and happier—middle manager.
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If you’re in middle management, which of these statements best describes you?
You encourage and motivate team members to do their best, cultivate relationships with peers, and influence the direction of the organization through achieving your goals.
Or you’re drowning in endless meetings and emails, wading through a sea of communications and processes, and being an outlet for the worries of your stressed-out team while trying to smile and remain positive.
If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. Nearly a fifth of managers and supervisors report signs of depression. And Gallup 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.”
It begs the question: Why are middle managers so unhappy? To answer that, consider, what is middle management? More than a middle management definition, consider their role in today’s organizations.
Middle managers are the bridges between individual contributors and upper management. They connect and convey. These key connectors are more important than ever, now, as companies try to be agile and adaptable. The bridge runs two-ways when the frontline is the first to encounter changing customer needs and innovative solutions.
They aren’t doing anyone any good if they feel like a wobbly wooden tension bridge that’s nearly buckling under the demands of the job. Instead, they need to feel like a strong and resilient steel-girded structure that can bear the load. To complicate things, middle managers are often being asked to take on new roles, not just bridge, but coach, role model, and developer of talent.
The good news is there are ways to be a stronger, happier middle manager. Paying attention to relationships; managing time, energy, and barriers at work; and making use of technology will all support your well-being.
The benefits of feeling good at work cannot be understated. First, for your team. 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 throughout your team and give them a boost.
Research has shown that managers have the strongest 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 with lower burnout and greater agility. Similarly, managers who are energized and dedicated around a sense of purpose, and who are optimistic and feel a strong sense of belonging have teams that are more agile, feel more meaning and purpose, better work-life balance, and higher satisfaction.
But what about the benefits for you personally? You likely spend a significant portion of your waking hours at work, and it’s important for it to be a place where you feel positive, grounded, and fulfilled. If you dread each day or are carrying negative thoughts and feelings with you, you may find the work day filled with frustrations, setbacks, and difficult team members rather than interesting challenges.
At its best, work can provide a sense of meaning, allowing you to channel your strengths for good, and to make a difference while earning a salary. When you’re feeling good about yourself and positive about work, you’re also more likely to recognize opportunities when they come knocking. You accept the high-visibility stretch assignment that will accelerate your growth. You connect with a peer across the company and form a really innovative collaboration.
Finally, work is a setting for connection, socializing, and belonging to a team. Feeling comfortable and happy at work can open you up to new friendships among colleagues, many of which last much longer than employees’ tenures.
Middle management is not without its challenges, but there are many things you can do to overcome them and truly thrive in your role.
- Have regular check-ins. Check-in regularly with your individual team members, and with your manager. Agree to the qualities you want in your working relationship, such as honesty, clear and timely communication, and a plan for what to do if things go off track. 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 the predictability of a reliable time.
- 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 and know that you support their decisions. This will encourage them to think for themselves and make decisions on their own.
- Pay attention to both tasks and relationships. You may have a preference for getting things done but have less time and patience for the relationship side of things. Or you may really love the people side of the job and feel more energized by that than you do by outcomes and achievements. Give both equal weight—they are both needed for success.
- Help team members 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 members share their challenges in collaborating with another department, speak to a peer to understand how you can all work better together. A key part of your role is to create the optimal conditions for people to do their best work, and then get out of their way.
- 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, which can have a negative impact on your well-being. Having an objective person to serve as a sounding board can help you process your thoughts.
- 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 from a future team member, and design your interview process to properly evaluate each candidate. For example, a skills assessment and behavioral interviewing questions can provide insight into a candidate's future performance.
- Protect your team from overwhelm. Take care not to over-burden your team. For instance, when a company leader asks your team to take on an additional project, take the time to consider your available resources and current commitments. You may need to reprioritize, request a longer timeline, or push back on the request in order to protect your team.
- Take time for learning. Create space for ongoing learning, whether that means enhancing your management skills, or learning about topics relevant to your area of work. Consider doing this in a group environment, like a class or company-wide certification. Learning with other managers will give you different perspectives and the chance to build your network of peers, inside and outside your organization.
- 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 able to think more clearly.
- 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 sticking to working hours that are fair to you and allow you to honor your commitments outside of work. The world may run 24/7, but you cannot.
People always have room to develop and grow, both personally and professionally. Here are some skills that may help you excel in a middle management role—and perhaps in your personal life as well.
- Communication: Communication skills are among the most important for managers to master. Make sure team members know what’s expected of them, and how their work contributes to the team’s collective 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 around 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 have issues with poor performance, deal with it early and explain that you have some concerns but 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 have a negative impact on your entire team, so it’s your role as the manager to intervene. Rope in your own manager or your HR 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 feel that you can’t focus in certain meetings? For instance, if you’re low on energy toward the end of the day and unable to have a meaningful conversion during a regular 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 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 and responsibilities of their new role, and maximizing the capabilities of their teams to meet their goals.
- Big-picture thinking. A key role of the middle manager is to harness the energy and contributions of the team in order to achieve the organization’s goals. You therefore need to understand and believe in the bigger vision in order to translate it into the work your team does.
When it comes to feeling balanced and calm in a middle management role technology can make a tremendous impact.
- Consider project management software. Tools like Jira, Asana, or a shared whiteboard on Miro can allow team members to track their work and provide you with visibility. This can help you see where projects might be getting stuck, where people have capacity, and how future initiatives and projects will match up with your resources. By creating a shared space, your one-on-one conversations won’t turn into status updates, and you’ll have a clear idea of who’s doing what and how you’re tracking against your goals.
- 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 process and prepare to switch between activities—or have a quick comfort 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?
- 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.
- Enable collaboration: Middle managers are responsible for ensuring their teams work together to meet shared goals. Implement tools that enable your team to communicate, collaborate, and share knowledge and ideas. This can help them solve problems for themselves without needing to come to you for information. Use an asynchronous chat tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams, where anyone in the team can respond.
- Use data. Set up reporting to tell the story of your team’s work through meaningful data. Use templates and design processes that minimize the time you spend creating and packaging the information, so you have more time to analyze the results and make meaning out of the data.
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Thank you for your interest in BetterUp.
Being the bridge from strategic vision to operational detail is part of the crucial work of middle management. Making sure that you are strong, connected, and supported will help you withstand the stress and ensure the work of your team 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.