Leadership has gotten a lot harder over the past couple years—and middle managers may have it worst. They face increased pressure for results and the escalating requirements to support employees who are struggling with wellbeing. Middle managers experience unique tensions between groups, demands and expectations.
Middle management is arguably tougher than senior leadership roles or individual contributor roles—and evidence tends to prove the point. It’s a special person who can navigate the maze of demands, find balance among all the pressures and meet the needs of diverse groups of stakeholders. Middle managers require attention because they have such an important influence and impact on the business.
But organizations can support middle managers so they don’t become stressed out, burned out or ineffective—and research points to what works best.
It’s Really Hard
The demands on leaders have shifted and now leaders must not only tolerate ambiguity, but embrace it. They must go beyond developing networks and nurture relationships. They must communicate with clarity rather than certainty, and they must not only engage, but go beyond—and inspire people.
In addition, managers have a significant effect on the mental health of their people—as much as a partner and more than a doctor or therapist according to some studies. Leaders have always cared about people’s wellbeing, but the stakes appear to be even higher today.
Middle managers especially feel the pressure and they are experiencing high levels of depression and anxiety compared with other roles in organizations, according to a study by Columbia University.
Why It’s Tough
The problem with middle management is demonstrated in its nature. Middle managers are caught between. The study by Columbia University found they suffer from being in contradictory roles—as owners of a problem, but also those who must solve the problem. They are directing work and they are performing work—and the dual nature of these roles can be challenging.
In addition, middle managers can find themselves caught up in the conflicts of those who are above them in the hierarchy as well as those who are below them, and this can be a source of stress, based on a study by Manchester University.
Middle managers are also under pressure for all kinds of results. They must hit the numbers, stay on schedule and meet customer demands—but they must also ensure people are retained and that wellbeing is supported.
Middle managers also have to find the right mix of being authentic about their own perspectives, but also aligned with organizational messaging. They must develop rapport with their teams at the same time they maintain appropriate distance and professionalism.
Middle managers are often faced with the challenge of implementing something they haven’t influenced and which they may or may not agree with. And they must manage themselves at the same time they are managing others.
Any of these tensions would be challenging to a leader, but middle managers tend to face the accumulation of these tensions—leaving them caught between and caught up in significant stress.
What They Need
In order to be their best, middle managers need plenty of support and empowerment, and research points to a few ways to accomplish this most effectively.
#1 – Value and Empower
One of the first things organizations and leaders can do is to be clear about how they value middle managers. Often, ideas from middle managers aren’t shared across the organization and this can cause middle managers to feel disempowered and disengaged, according to a study by the University of California.
In addition, a study by the University of Kansas found middle managers felt like go-betweens without enough influence—and they sought to control even the smallest of details to win back some sense of empowerment. Middle managers can feel like they are in the shadows—asked simply to execute, rather than to provide expertise.
Ask middle managers for their input. Share their ideas. Give middle managers the spotlight and recognize their contributions. Be sure middle managers know their points of view are heard, amplified and taken into consideration.
Move decision making to the lowest possible point in the hierarchy and ensure you’re incorporating middle manager input and perspectives—based on their experience of how the work is really occurring.
#2 – Context
Like all employees, middle managers are a product of the culture they’re part of—but they also amplify culture because they affect many people’s experiences of work and quality of work-life. A study by Vanderbilt University found when middle managers were ineffective, it was typically because they reported to next-level leaders who were similarly ineffective, and middle managers’ satisfaction was based on the trickle-down of leadership styles.
Be sure to nurture a culture of respect and empowerment. Provide plenty of direction and a clear sense of vision and mission at the same time you’re empowering involvement and participation from individuals and groups. Ensure clear practices, limits and boundaries balanced by approaches which allow for adaptability and responsiveness to markets, competitors and customer demands.
Also ensure there are clear principles and policies for middle managers to follow. Too often, managers are left to decide on how the work gets done with too few guidelines—leaving them without support or the backstop of policies.
#3 – Expectations
Middle managers also need realistic expectations. Too many managers report they are up against unrealistic demands for results with too few resources—or requirements for a higher level of performance than they are skilled to meet. A study by Penn State found that unrealistic expectations could be the origin of bad behaviors in which middle managers were under so much pressure to perform they fudged numbers or took destructive shortcuts.
Be sure to set goals which are challenging, but achievable. And ensure managers have the resources they need to meet them. Be open to managers who push back and listen when they talk about what they need to be successful. Empower creative solutions when managers face problems and back up managers when they have to make tough decisions.
#4 – Support
Middle managers also need support. With their unique challenges, they especially need mentors—preferably from other departments so they can benefit from advice which is more distant and therefore more objective, and which can be a safe space for them to vent, voice uncertainty or seek guidance.
Middle managers also need avenues to build their networks with other middle managers with whom they can share their challenges, let down their hair and have confidential conversations away from their teams.
#5 – Resources
As they face greater demands, middle managers also need resources. They access to information so they know the business deeply—and can make good decisions. They need outstanding communication skills as people increasingly turn to them for perspective, point of view and clarity.
Managers also need an understanding of how to ask questions, listen and express empathy. Often these capabilities are innate, but they can also benefit from coaching and development. Leaders need to know about the resources they can tap into for their own wellbeing, and the resources they can offer to employees who may need support as well.
And leaders need time to do their jobs. Too often, companies add so much training to managers’ plates that it exacerbates pressure and demands, rather than reliving or empowering the managers.
Working Through It
A big part of supporting middle managers is realizing their unique tensions—and their special value. Investment in middle management skills is critical, but so is investment in middle managers as unique contributors—who make a huge impact on results, on the work experience and on people.