Middle Management: Why It’s So Exhausting and What to Do about It (2023)

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.

Middle Management: Why It’s So Exhausting and What to Do about It (1)

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 is a middle manager?

A middle manager is someone who is in a leadership position and also reports to top management. They manage their team's career progression, communicate decisions from upper management, and adjust workflows, processes, and priorities to align with overall business objectives.

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.

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Author: Nathanael Baumbach

Last Updated: 12/13/2022

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