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The Middle Manager’s Survival Guide


Leaders who must manage up and down are feeling the pressure these days. Here are four steps to get by, and maybe even thrive

A women in glasses, thinking about multiple work tasks, yellow background

It’s a tough time to be a middle manager. In some ways, it was ever thus: As the intermediaries between top brass and rank and file, middle managers have always found themselves enforcing policies they didn’t create, operationalizing decisions they didn’t make, and navigating the fraught interpersonal dynamics of simultaneously managing up while managing down. 

Middle management has long been a position of unique pressures, the effects of which are well documented: A 2015 study led by researchers at Columbia University found those in the middle of org charts to be twice as likely to experience anxiety, and significantly more prone to depression, than non-managing employees. 

But the pandemic hard-launched an array of new stressors, with many middle managers forced to straddle the intensity of caregiving (to children, parents and, often, both) and the unfamiliarity of managing people through screens — all while absorbing the unrelenting creep of more meetings, more deliverables, more responsibility. And now, as workplaces reassume their pre-Covid policies and priorities, the cracks are showing.

“In the past year or two, we’ve seen a shifting stance from many senior managers away from ‘we need to support people through this pandemic’ and towards ‘OK, we have to go back to holding people accountable, we need to get back to results,’” explains Dane Jensen, an expert on pressure and resilience and CEO of Third Factor, a Toronto-based firm that helps people perform, collaborate and lead more effectively. “It’s creating a lot of pressure for the people in the middle who have to actually execute this stuff.” 

This goes beyond garden-variety workplace irritation — the stuff you might resolve over a cathartic venting session with a friend. In a study published in 2023 by the UKG Workforce Institute think tank, 57 per cent of middle managers surveyed said they wished someone had warned them not to take their current job; and 46 per cent expected to quit in the year ahead due to workplace stress. Across industries, across borders, middle managers are burning out

If you’re nodding in grim recognition as you read this, take heed: Burnout is not inevitable. We asked Jensen, a Smith School of Business graduate, to share some resilience-boosting tactics that might help overextended middle managers. As he reveals, with a few changes to how you think about and approach your work, you can start to lower your stress, enrich your workdays and regain your sense of control. 

1. Strip away stressors 

“We have an epidemic of volume right now,” Jensen explains. “At least 90 per cent of what we hear from middle managers is a variation on ‘I have five bosses. I have 50 priorities. I have meetings seven hours a day. It is all too much.’” If your workload feels untenable, and if you can’t change that, it’s time to change what you can by ruthlessly eliminating stressors in three main areas of your job: your tasks, your decisions and the distractions that get in the way. 

When it comes to tasks, Jensen recommends conducting a clear-eyed audit of what’s really on your plate — a variable easily concealed by the daily deluge of meetings. Merge your to-do list with your calendar to get a realistic lens on everything you’re responsible for doing and delivering. Identify — with your boss, if possible — what you might be able to delegate. Assign a numerical priority to each item left on your list and use it to triage how you focus your time.

Decisions can be major energy drains for managers, Jensen says. “They tend to hang out at the back of our brain and create a cognitive baseload.” This, he adds, can contribute to our brains feeling overwhelmed. One solution: Jensen suggests replacing decisions with principles — of seeking, whenever possible, what productivity expert Tim Ferriss describes as the one decision to remove 100 decisions. By developing principles to guide how you handle the many calls you must make — about what paid time off you’ll approve, for instance, or about which IT requests will get precedence — you free up a lot of the energy required in evaluating the individual pros and cons of each item. 

As for distractions? Every modern manager knows how quickly the constant patter of pings, interruptions and questions can eat up a day — and how brutally fast the agitation of not getting things done can accumulate. “I’m a big believer that structure trumps willpower,” Jensen says. He recommends creating “indistractable” pockets in your day by, say, putting your devices on airplane mode or blocking off your calendar with focus time. “Creating these little Fortresses of Solitude gives you some built-in reprieve from that feeling of ‘OK, I have all these things I need to do, but I just can’t get to them because I’m constantly getting pulled away.’”  

2. Prioritize your physical resilience 

Most people know, at least in the abstract, that physical health is important for professional performance. But fitness and wellness also tend to be the first things busy and stressed middle managers abandon when things get busier and more stressful. 

If you’re one of those people who thinks they can thrive on four hours of sleep and a tureen of caffeine, Jensen doesn’t buy it. “Sleep, nutrition and movement really are critical in countering burnout,” he says. “The research is pretty unequivocal about that.” The ideal mix, from his work? Try for seven hours of sleep a night. Move for 30 minutes a day. Choose foods that smooth your blood sugar. In aggregate, these lifestyle changes bolster mood stability, decrease reactivity and serve as a healthy buffer against burnout. 

3. Strengthen your social safety nets 

A major magnifier of burnout for middle managers — especially if you’re someone who’s invested a lot of time and energy into your career — is the feeling that everything is at stake if you miss a deadline or fumble a promotion opportunity. That your reputation will be toast. That nobody will ever want to work with you again. That you’ll be a failure. 

Many managers fall into these “cascading thought loops,” Jensen says. And many respond with an impulse to isolate or shut down. Instead, he recommends turning to people you don’t work with — your friends, your family, your neighbours — for an important shift in perspective. “Relationships are like a safety net,” he explains. “When you know that at the end of the day, you have people who love you unconditionally, and whose love and care for you is not conditional on what you do and don’t achieve at work, it creates a very important backstop in the face of pressure.” So, maybe don’t bail on that thrice-rescheduled coffee with an old pal. Even — especially — if you’re too busy. 

4. Control what you can 

Pressure can be a powerful force for growth. Jensen even wrote a whole book about it, called The Power of Pressure. But when pressure is paired with feelings of helplessness, it can quickly fuel burnout. “Control is the big mediator of pressure,” Jensen explains. “So much of developing resilience, and of avoiding burnout, is searching for handholds of control.” 

It’s true that as a middle manager, many things are out of your hands. You can’t change big macroeconomic shifts like the rate of inflation or geopolitical crises like the conflicts in the Middle East or Ukraine. Nor can you do much to influence your organization’s new strategic direction, or return-to-work policy, or the irritating way your boss talks over you in meetings. 

But you can control your reactions to stressful circumstances: how you interpret things, how you react, where you can draw energy. As Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about in Man’s Search for Meaning, your ability to assign purpose to even the smallest action, in even the most dire situations, is yours and yours alone — and no one can take it away. 

“That’s what builds self-efficacy,” Jensen says. “In the middle of adversity, there is a lot of power in that.”