The Miserable Middle Managers

New technology, fewer meetings, continued learning can help ease their stress

By Dana Wilkie Mar 12, 2018
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​They make dozens of decisions each day, but usually not the big ones that shape a company's future. They're saddled with all the busywork of managing subordinates, yet also answer to higher-ups whose policies they must enforce—even when they don't have a say in making those policies and their direct reports object to them.

They're middle managers, and research finds they are the unhappiest employees at U.S. organizations.

But they don't have to be, employment experts say—not if they take advantage of new technologies, suggest changes in workplace policies and invest time in professional development.

Misery by the Numbers

In 2015, researchers at Columbia University surveyed nearly 22,000 full-time workers. They found that 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. The study authors, both executives at leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, based in Orem, Utah, gathered data from more than 320,000 employees in various organizations. They identified those employees whose engagement and commitment scores were in the bottom 5 percent and compared their responses with those of the rest of the study group.

"You might think these would be the people with poor performance ratings or the ones in over their heads—people with inadequate training, education or experience for the job," the authors wrote. "But when we examined the demographic characteristics of these employees, we found instead that they could best be described as those 'stuck in the middle of everything.' "

The most common profile for the bottom 5 percent, they found, was that they:

*Had earned a college degree, but not a graduate degree.

*Had five to 10 years' tenure.

*Worked as midlevel managers.

*Had received a good (as opposed to a superior or a terrible) performance rating in the past year.

Technology Can Help

So what can be done about the dissatisfied middle manager? Experts suggest that part of their discontent stems from spending too much time on administrative tasks, leaving them little time for leading.

Technology can help them conduct tasks that were once considered "managerial," from scheduling to training to performance reviews. Yet some managers still don't take advantage of these tools, according to Montreal, Quebec-based WorkJam, which provides digital platforms for shift scheduling, onboarding, communication and other tasks.

"Across industries, from retail to hospitality to health care, the arduous task of scheduling falls to managers, who have to synchronize individual schedules and often assign shifts without knowing associates' availability," said WorkJam CEO Steven Kramer. "By migrating this process onto a digital workplace platform, employers can put the power in the hands of the associates [and] … are freed from this burden."

Andrew Sumitani director of marketing for Seattle-based TINYpulse, which creates employee engagement surveys. He has worked on several projects focusing on middle management.

"By using simple but effective technology, middle managers can balance their roles more effectively," he said. "What's critical is for that technology to create a safe space for transparent, candid feedback to reach all levels of the organization. Subsequently, middle managers won't be spending as much time collecting and providing feedback for upper managers. They'll have that time to properly coach, mentor and lift their direct reports and become outstanding leaders themselves."

For instance, TINYpulse offers software that continuously measures the decisions made by employees on a team, and that gives middle managers information on the strengths and limitations of those decisions.

Accounting giant PwC has created an app that helps companies evaluate strengths and weaknesses within their workforce, while also suggesting learning and development opportunities that can help employees improve their performances.

Too Many Meetings

Some research suggests that these managers find it frustrating and exhausting to constantly switch between the role of "leader" to subordinates and the role of "follower" to their own supervisors. It also suggests that this frustration is exacerbated when middle managers are inundated with meetings.

"Keeping middle managers in meetings is a way for upper managers to listen to the entire organization," Sumitani acknowledged. "However, if upper managers demand increasingly detailed feedback from middle managers, a problem occurs: The middle manager's job of managing a team and reporting to upper management becomes profoundly unbalanced."

Here, again, technology can help, he said.

"More forward-thinking managers are utilizing technology that [helps] employees to provide feedback, solutions and suggestions to upper management to act on," Sumitani explained. "This shortcuts the communication flow in a way that eases the burden on middle managers. This leads to reduced feelings of being overwhelmed, higher productivity and significantly higher middle manager happiness."

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Preventing Employee Burnout]

Professional Development

Sumitani also suggested that continued learning for middle managers can make their jobs easier.

"Many middle managers have not been in their industries for their entire careers," he noted. "Therefore, they could be trying to learn the industry, do their jobs and stay on top of their craft, all at the same time. Anything that companies can do to invest in learning also shows their commitment [to] and confidence in those managers."

For instance, PwC's app identifies ways managers can focus on digital training and directs them to personalized learning recommendations and access to more than 300 courses, videos and white papers.

"These lessons can no longer come within the office, over an hour of coffee and scones," PwC said in a statement. "It needs to be personalized, digitally accessible and in line with work-life balance and flexibility needs that are now the norm."

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