The Most Hated: So, You Thought Your Job Was Tough? Try Being Middle Management

MercerCountyWorks
8 min readNov 5, 2020

by Justin Tyler

I bet that you have heard the following phrase at some point in your life:

“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

When someone created this phrase, I’m pretty certain that they had middle management on their mind. It’s these two words — “middle management” — that either has a person excited to triumph as the last competitor remaining in the “Corporate Hunger Games” or to eventually shriek under the pressure of high performance and quick deadlines mixed with seemingly unrealistic expectations from the top.

Initially, there is an allure to what middle management offers to an ambitious employee. In the minds of these individuals, the prospect of corporate vertical ascendancy seems appealing because earning a promotion is the necessary next step while providing a sense of performance validation. Additionally, this person does not have the burden of: strategic vision, difficult and large-scale decision-making, learning fellow C-suite roles, comprehending different areas of the business and mastering the know-how and nuances of the industry.

So, why does middle management suck? In the wise words of Memphis rapper-turned-entrepreneur Yo Gotti, “women lie, men lie, numbers don’t lie.” Without further adieu (and with his blessings), let’s take a look at the numbers. According to Dana Wilkie,

  • 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. The share of blue-collar workers reporting depression was 12 percent; for owners and executives, it was 11 percent.
  • A separate 2014 study found that when it comes to job satisfaction, managers fall in the bottom 5 percent.

Need more proof? Let’s view more statistics from Vantage Circle’s Iftekar Ahmed:

  • Almost 50% of middle managers take their work home or work overtime.
  • 75% of managers feel that their subordinates cannot increase their productivity.

If you don’t know, now you know! Albeit a smaller sample size, the burden of proof is firmly within the statistics.

To make sure that we are aligned, what exactly is middle management? Middle managers are widely considered the “meat of the sandwich” and the key intersection linking lower management/entry-level employees and senior/top/upper management. Professionals in this role are at the center of the organization because they are expected to manage up and report to senior management while assisting and developing lower management and staff. Therefore, many consider the responsibilities and duties of mid-management professionals extremely difficult and exhaustive because they are unable to challenge directives from senior management, must juggle the all-around requests from lower operational staff and closely monitor KPIs to ensure efficiency and productivity on a day-to-day basis. Typically, the basic profile of a middle manager includes a person that has competency in specific technical skills and/or systems, exhibits the necessary prerequisite experience in the industry and/or company, possesses a track record of good-to-above-average performance, assigns tasks and goals to employees and serves as an on-time communicator upward and downward in the organizational hierarchy.

There are certain attributes of a high-value, high-performing middle manager that are indeed taxing and tiresome. Admirable mid-managers must exhibit strong interpersonal skills that lead to timely communication, motivation, on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring. In their role, highly-competent managers will execute organizational plans from senior management and invest time and resources with lower management and staff members to align the specific workforce to the goals while facilitating process and performance growth. For their duties, mid-managers focus on solving individual and group problems, monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs), implementing information systems, leveraging statistics to manage up and down and share recommendations in addition to working alongside HR to cultivate reward, compensation, recruitment, retention and succession systems.

Ladies and gentlemen, with all of the background information behind what good middle managers do, I’m seriously wondering if determined and performing managers have to invest, at minimum, 60–80 hours per week to be somewhat “irreplaceable” and valued by their organization.

Some of the Tough Realities of Middle Management Life

  • You will be overleveraged. Imagine a scenario where you are engaged in several top management meetings per day to understand a plan of action for a project/program while managing up and providing detailed information and summations of lower operational level subordinates. Throughout the day, the middle manager will be frequently switching from a follower of a direct line manager(s) to a leader of people composed of individuals and teams that are expected to perform well regardless of any circumstances. You are at the whim of upper management for retrieving and communicating on-time information, managing up and providing detailed reports/summations, all while being expected to be actively present for myriad subordinate requests, feedback loops, on-the-job training, coverage issues, escalations and problem-solving sessions.
  • You will feel corporate pressure and will be an easy target of the “blame game.” The blame game and harsh criticism from both subordinates and top management make mid-level managers constantly feel the heat from the organization’s kitchen. Let’s face it — the middle manager lacks true decision-making power and/or lacks authority to make changes to processes, policies, procedures and systems without the approval of his/her direct line manager(s). So, bearing the brunt for things that go wrong like reduced productivity, fledgling performance or failing to meet goals should be expected as someone has to be the martyr. When the good times roll, it’s a toss-up if the middle manager receives the appreciation, recognition and employment validation that he/she deserves (depending on the values of the organization).
  • You will have to expertly deal with unrealistic expectations. Didn’t I mention that middle management is stressful? Yes, it can be an extremely challenging and demanding place to sustainably operate at a proficient level. According to Ahmed, on average, an employee is “stuck” in the middle management role for about 7 years. During this time, senior management is evaluating your knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs), personality, your combination of soft and hard skills as well as your inner fortitude to consistently overcome challenging situations. However, toiling in the seemingly purgatory of mid-level management can be detrimental to mental health, even if the road to senior management is to first succeed on this level. In fact, in reference to Lam, “Prins says that research has traditionally shown that workers without a lot of decision-making power scored highest in stress and depressive symptoms. However, Prins’s study showed that middle managers were the most prone to both depression and anxiety.” The public health expert himself has easily conveyed, through research, that middle management is not for the faint of heart.

Can High Emotional Intelligence and an Abundant Mindset Help Spur Growth as a Middle Manager?

What some people see as problems are what others see as possibilities. Therefore, being a manager doesn’t have to be doom-and-gloom after all. In fact, there are several factors to adequately evaluate if you have the chops to make it through the middle management gauntlet, including:

  • Personality/Disposition: There are certain skills that are associated with good middle managers; these attributes must also be a good fit and compliment for an individual on the personal level, as well. For example, a superb mid-level manager must be comfortable with change and leading change management initiatives. Switching back-and-forth between follower and leader throughout the day can have a slow creep impact on a manager’s self-efficacy level and job satisfaction, so professionals in this role must have the innate drive to succeed. Additionally, embracing change that is constant, global and inevitable makes tolerating and transforming it into a positive opportunity a skill in itself. Some of the other talents that competent hiring managers possess are communications, creativity/innovation, attention-to-detail and a knack for reporting/managing up.
  • Penchant for Learning Quickly From Mistakes and Readjusting: Being perfect doesn’t help you. As a lifelong learner, making mistakes will aid you long-term. Hopefully, experience from entry-level and other roles has prepared you well for the next step as a mid-manager. Senior managers are looking to recruit, select, develop and grow professionals that learn quickly from mistakes and flash the ability to readjust plans, as needed. Being able to bounce back from constructive criticism, harsh initial feedback and bruises to the ego are essential for the longevity of any professional; there will be many bumps on the rocky road to become a competent manager, let alone one day rising to the ranks of senior management. The best of the best in the workplace understand the importance and immediacy to return to the business mindframe and focus on re-evaluating the problem, brainstorming and agreeing to action steps and utilizing KPIs to measure progress to the desired outcome.
  • Think Enormous: The great American lyricist Jay Z once stated on his iconic debut album Reasonable Doubt that he’d “rather die enormous than live dormant, that’s how we on it.” Well, Mr. Carter, I couldn’t agree with you more! It has been said before, but the mind can either serve as a pathway to an infinite expanse or create a metaphorical four walls enclosing your inner doubt. Thinking enormous is akin to confidence and self-efficacy. As a manager, you must have the belief that you will not only succeed against all odds, but you must compel your team to buy-in and feel assured that they have the systems and resources necessary to also handle what comes their way. High levels of depression, anxiety, stress and fatigue are all by-products of being a middle manager, so it is imperative to invest into various means of positive mental health and well-being. Without a positive you, the prospects prove difficult to effectively lead others.

Life really embodies the quote, “I’m stuck in between a rock and a hard place.” Depending on a number of factors, most of us are not ever comfortable with our lot in life. We look to strive toward something greater than where we are now. We strive to live in a place more beautiful than where we currently reside. We strive to achieve a greater life balance between our personal and professional lives. Therefore, we perpetually feel stuck on that path to climb higher, but over time, our ambition meets our outcomes.

The same applies for middle management. Commit to doing your best and endeavor to put forth genuine effort, day-in and day-out. You will always have the choice to bow out gracefully or continue to move forward from the most hated to…. the most celebrated — in middle management.

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