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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

3 Ways to Stay Sane and Upbeat When You're a Middle Manager

An executive, an entry-level employee, and a mid-level manager walk into a bar. It’s happy hour, but only two of the three are able to put work aside, relax, and unwind. Can you guess who, statistically speaking, is the one feeling the most stressed and least happy?

It’s the middle manager. Numerous studies have uncovered the truth about being in mid-level management: It’s downright stressful!

The data, in fact, is pretty depressing:

  • Middle managers have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their superiors and subordinates.
  • 18% of supervisors and managers have experienced symptoms of depression.
  • More than half say they feel “constantly worried.”
  • 47% take their work worries home with them.

Yikes! Those are some serious numbers. But before you start thinking “thanks, but no thanks” regarding that promotion to management, keep in mind that it’s really not all doom and gloom.

In fact, the job can be incredibly rewarding. You’ll get to be a talent scout, a mentor, and a team builder. So how do great managers do it: love their work and stay upbeat? First, it helps to figure what causes the pressure and stress. Second, you can do these three things:

1. Align Personal Passion With the Company’s Mission

In middle management, you usually have little authority when it comes to setting an organization’s overall direction, mission, and goals, but, nonetheless, you’re expected to motivate both yourself and your team.

I spoke with Sarah Young and Dr. Allison Poss, co-founders of The Innovators Academy—a company that provides research-driven leadership programs to organizations that want to build creative, innovative work cultures—about how people can better carry out a workplace’s mission in spite of the fact that it may not be 100% in line with their personal vision. Young told me that the best way to move beyond this conflict is to clarify personal values, understand the organization's values, and find ways to bridge the two.

“Small daily practices can have a big impact,” Young says, encouraging you to create “a long list of things you are passionate about and what you’re best at, and a list of what your company needs. Identify any matches. Then, make sure there’s at least one item on your to-do list each day that you care about that is also important to your company.”

Long story short: If you’re personally passionate about something that your institution is working toward, you’ll have a much easier time supporting your team as they complete tasks central to the mission.

(Oh, and if there’s no overlap, it might be time to look for a new job altogether—there should always be some substantial similarities in what your company does and what you want to do.)

2. Re-define What a Good Day at Work Means

In middle management, as you've probably noticed, your work isn’t generally met with the satisfaction and praise that it used to be when you were simply in charge of completing your own projects each day.

As a team member, you may have thrived on the instant gratification of checking off tasks, like completing a slide presentation or signing up a new customer. You owned your to-do list and used it as a parameter of how you were performing. But as a manager, no one’s walking around and handing you gold stars for coaching Lisa on her presentation delivery or helping Jeremy draft an email response to an angry client. Your once checked-off to-do list is now just a series of open-ended items that can only be categorized as “management stuff.”

But here’s the thing: Being a manager isn’t about feeling satisfied after putting in a solid day’s work; rather, it’s about getting your team to deliver stellar results and feeling great about their accomplishments instead. When your crew is praised, it’s a nod to your leadership efforts. So, when your team gets great feedback, you can (and should!) pat yourself on the back because, after all, you led the way to that success.

3. Negotiate Authority

According to the widely-cited Karasek model of workplace stress, a person in a job with high demands but little decision-making liberties is likely to be more prone to dissatisfaction and mental strain. Mid-level managers often lack the positional authority to set an organization’s vision or change course on a strategy, but are still held responsible for the end results.

So as a manager, there might be days when you feel like the proverbial meat in the sandwich. But good news, you have the ability to avoid the pitfall of having responsibility without authority.

Here’s how: Invest time in understanding your leaders, their goals, and their decision-making styles. Watch and learn from peers who have the gift of the gab and communicate persuasively with your superiors. Be determined to have a voice. Prepare your talking points before meetings and teleconferences, so you’re ready to stand up for your team, speak up on their behalf, sell your ideas, and ultimately (hopefully) have a say in the overall vision.

Over time, you’ll earn upper management’s respect, and along with it, the right to “speak truth to power.” Effective communication with your leaders is critical if you want not just responsibility, but a growing authority as well.

Do all of this correctly (or almost all right), and you’ll be on your way to becoming the kind of manager your team will brag about having.

Your job may not be easy, but don’t underestimate the awesomeness of being in a position where you can really and truly help people grow and succeed. While you definitely have more challenges than you did before, you also now have so many more opportunities to develop your own leadership skills and nurture other people’s—and what’s more exciting than that?

Photo of manager working with team members courtesy of Shutterstock.