Stuck in the middle: managing pressure and staying motivated in mid-level roles.

Stuck in the middle

Do you sit somewhere in the middle in your organisation’s hierarchy? If you do, how’s life? It’s quite likely you feel that you are constantly in a work pressure sandwich with frequent demands from above and below. You may well be trying to understand what your development path is and stay motivated around further progressing your career. Life pressures away from work could be significant and you might be struggling to manage the crossover between work and the rest of your life. This begins to build into quite a depressing scenario, but life in the middle doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s paint an alternative picture. You can see across your organisation, above, below and all around you. This puts you in a position where you can have an impact and influence in all directions. You have a myriad of developmental options across your organisation. Your life is rich and varied and you can blend your work into the rest of your life in a way than enhances both. This isn’t utopia. It is achievable but often requires that we radically rethink life in the middle and, just as challengingly, change our habits and behaviour.

We need to start by ensuring we avoid a state of learned helplessness. Martin Seligman defines this state as ‘the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.’ (Seligman, 2006, p15). Working with a wide range of mid-level people in businesses and organizations I frequently see signs of learned helplessness. For example, I often hear managers say that they feel they cannot do anything because they are completely overloaded. However, there is plenty of evidence that other factors such as the level of perceived control people have, or the extent to which they feel supported, can be just as important as workload in determining effectiveness. This is a classic situation where facing extreme pressure in one area can feel overpowering to the point that we no longer believe we can make a significant difference in any aspect of our life.

I am currently writing a book, with Professor Cary Cooper, which will be published early next year with the focus on managing in mid-level roles. A key objective of the book is to help people reframe their experience of life in the middle. It is targeted at those that undertake middle management activity rather than specifically middle managers. While few have the job title of middle manager many undertake middle management as a core part of their role.

Historically the view of the middle manager has been far from positive. Back in 1990 a typical middle manager was profiled as ‘a frustrated, disillusioned individual caught in the middle of a hierarchy, impotent and with no real hope for career progression.’ (Dopson & Stewart, 1990). In fact management activity generally seems to have become progressively less fashionable in the past two or three decades, particularly in comparison to leadership. I am not setting out to argue that being a middle manager should be held up as the pinnacle of achievement or the ultimate aspiration! Rather I am suggesting that middle management as an area of functional activity is important and forms a large part of the day-to-day role played by many people in organisations.

The demise of middle management has been predicted by many over the last few decades (e.g. Gratton, 2011). Yet in 2012 the Wall Street Journal estimated there were 10.8 million middle managers in the United States, making up nearly 8% of the total workforce. This represented a rise of close to 2% of the US workforce from 10 years previously. The middle could be the place where most people will spend the last two or three decades of their career. Therefore, we need to do all we can to ensure we are equipped to understand and handle the inherent pressures in that space, and to stay motivated and keep developing when that next promotion may never come.

I am seeking case studies for the new book from organisations that have done great work to support their mid-level people, either in terms of dealing with pressure or in their development. Please contact me if you have something relevant from your organisation that you’d like to share.

References

Dopson, S., & Stewart, R. (1990). What is happening to middle management. British Journal of Management, 1, 3-16.

Gratton, L. (2012). The End of the Middle Manager. https://hbr.org/2011/01/column-the-end-of-the-middle-manager

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books, New York.


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