They spend their days ensuring the team they lead is working at its optimal performance. And they spend their other days ensuring their bosses, often C-suite leaders and upper management, have everything they need. So, managers find themselves living in the forgotten middle, a term called “middle child syndrome” in families, or “middle management syndrome” at work. In this gray area, they often don’t get enough training or the acknowledgment or credit they deserve and are often overlooked because the focus is on the levels both above and below them.
A study by The Conference Board reported that only 19% of middle managers surveyed felt they received proper training in leadership and management after being promoted. In another survey, only 35% of managers are engaged, 51% are not engaged (defined as caring little about their job and company) and 14% are actively disengaged. So, there is work to be done to support these “middle children” of management in a variety of ways.
Why managers experience ‘middle management syndrome’
Sandwiched between the needs of their bosses and their employees, managers are in a difficult position. “Of all leadership positions in an organization, middle managers feel the most pressure and stress from upper management and team members during periods of disruption and change, like the pandemic and the post-pandemic work environment,” says Paul Glover, an Illinois-based business and leadership speaker, coach and author. He says companies have created this stressful situation for middle managers because when most middle managers are promoted, it’s not because they possess the skills necessary to manage or lead a team. “[Instead] it’s because they’re high performing skilled employees, committed to the organization.”
There can also be some assumptions about who will make an effective manager, but without the training to support an employee who seems promising for leadership roles. “There is an assumption that a successful individual contributor will automatically make a good manager, but that is not always the case,” says Barbara Palmer, founder of Broad Perspective Consulting, a firm that focuses on work transitions and unlocking employee potential in Los Angeles. “Often, the title change doesn’t come with the support for the leadership growth necessary to create the leaders we want.”
Middle management syndrome might be even tougher for women in leadership
When you compound inherent gender bias in a workplace with middle management syndrome, women can face a double whammy in their position as a manager or leader. “This can be especially detrimental as they are already under more pressure than their male counterparts to perform at a higher level,” says Dr. Rosina Racioppi, CEO and president of WOMEN Unlimited Inc., an organization that works to develop, educate and mentor women leaders in New York. “Women managers also find it difficult to self-promote, thinking that their work will speak for themselves. When women are overlooked because they are not advocating for themselves, this may lead to them leaving their job or even the workplace.”
Untangling the issue can involve some serious deep work in company culture. It can also ensure managers are well-trained, supported and recognized.
How to support managers
With some intentionality, open conversations and data gathering among managers, and redistribution of support and resources, managers can lose that middle child syndrome with their own leaders’ support.
Building a culture of support
“Companies that allow for a transition to management with training, support, coaching and ongoing mentorship see higher retention rates and job satisfaction both from the leaders and from those that they lead,” Palmer says. “Leaders with foundational skills create a culture of inspiring leaders, and that enhances the culture of an organization overall.”
“Professional development training is a good way not only to invest in your high-potential leaders, but also to show a commitment to leaders who may need additional support ahead of promotion,” Palmer adds. “Training and support should be consistently and equitably offered. It is also helpful to have all employees at a certain career mark go through training to ensure skills and tools are consistent across the organization. Coaching is not punitive, but rather an investment in their continued success.”
Address ‘quiet quitters’ they are overseeing
Managers might struggle with a common problem within the workforce: employees who aren’t performing their best or are getting by doing the bare minimum. They are called “quiet quitters,” and they can make a middle manager’s job pretty tough, especially when they are the messenger reporting to leadership about why things aren’t going as smoothly as they could.
“The C-Suite must recognize the pressure middle managers are facing from a workforce comprised of a majority of employees who are unengaged quiet quitters, actively disengaged employees and engaged employees—the company’s talent—who, if they aren’t getting the attention and appreciation they need from their managers, will quit,” Glover says. “This means the organization’s leadership must eliminate the ‘do more with less’ attitude and provide middle managers with the resources and employees they need to get the job done effectively and efficiently.”
It can help to train those overseeing and training managers to watch for signs that this is an issue.
“Leaders should be on the lookout for signs of quiet frustration: a lack of enthusiasm where there once was or a diminishing commitment to the role, for example,” Racioppi explains. “Regular check-ins with managers—especially female managers, wherein constructive feedback is provided—as well as recognition of their accomplishments, can go a long way in preventing this ‘syndrome’ from taking root.”
Watch for managers shutting down before it happens
Some managers want to just handle their business without making waves, especially in workplace environments without clear means to communicate issues without judgment. So, it’s possible to have managers silently shutting down at the frustration they feel. Instead, they need supportive leaders above them watching for these signs, who are ready to step in to support them.
“If a manager is feeling a lack of support from leadership while simultaneously having to still steer their subordinates, they can begin to feel disengaged from their role and ultimately lose passion for their job,” Racioppi says. “This, of course, not only hampers the manager’s growth within the organization but can have a contagious, detrimental effect throughout the organization.”
She adds that if a manager is not engaged, it’s incredibly difficult for those in lower positions to have a firm sense of direction for their work, leading to lackluster performance across the lower half of the organization. “And leadership bears the brunt of the consequences since the buck ultimately stops with them,” Racioppi says.
Increase intentional recognition and appreciation
Glover shares an example of how intentional recognition could change the culture for managers, who might have otherwise been overlooked.
“An experienced command and control manager scoffed at the idea that expressing appreciation to a team member or the team would increase team engagement,” Glover says. “However, the manager agreed to an experiment. For four weeks, on a daily basis, he would express sincere appreciation to any team member who had met performance requirements for that day. At the end of the work week, he would express appreciation to the entire team if they had met the performance requirements for that week.
“At the end of the month, he was so impressed by the level of discretionary effort individual team members and the whole team were producing, he asked to be included in an emotional intelligence workshop,” Glover says.
Cultivate opportunities specifically for women in leadership
While all managers need support, women facing uphill battles and potential isolation in leadership positions can sometimes benefit from specific, targeted opportunities.
“We often encounter instances of ‘middle-child syndrome’ from women managers in our program whose leaders are overwhelmed and not able to provide them with enough attention and guidance, usually through no fault of their own,” Racioppi says. “These managers haven’t received training in self-advocacy, resulting in frustration when they observe their male counterparts progressing in their careers, as the latter are generally more adept at asserting themselves.”
She says a transformative moment occurs when women learn to effectively communicate their value to leadership within the organization. “They learn how to seek opportunities to garner feedback from leadership, ask questions about potential career advancement and position themselves to take on responsibilities that directly tie to the organization’s goals. All of these tactics allow for career growth opportunities while ensuring they never have to feel subject to ‘middle child syndrome’ in the workplace.”
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