You’re A Middle Manager? How Depressing.

by  Chris Edmonds  |  Leadership Development
You’re A Middle Manager? How Depressing.

Maybe that’s a bold a statement – but it’s very close to reality. Research shows that middle managers don’t get much love.

A recent study by the journal Sociology of Health and Illness, shared in this Washington Postarticle, found that middle managers and supervisors are more likely to suffer depression, to feel taken advantage of at work, and to experience anxiety about work than are frontline workers or senior leaders.

When I was a middle manager – a program director at three different non-profits – I felt this frustration. My role required that I balance the demands placed on me by my responsibilities and by my bosses with the desire to have my direct reports be productive, happy, and cooperative team members.

More often than not I felt I was set up to fail. I was between a rock and a hard place! My team members may not have had the skills to accomplish new tasks or hit new targets – and I may not have had the skills to inspire my team to consistent performance.

I didn’t always have bosses who were nurturing sounding boards or who were able to teach me needed skills. I did the best I could but I know I missed the mark more often than I hit it. That was demoralizing and frustrating. I felt anxiety more than I felt inspiration.

When I did have bosses who listened, laughed, guided, taught, and inspired, I was less anxious, less frustrated – and I contributed more, to my organization and to my team.

Employee engagement is an important outcome for leaders – but don’t let the term “employee” mean “front line team members.” Middle managers are employees, too!

For example, Tiny HR’s 2014 Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report found that only 21 percent of all employees who responded to their survey feel “strongly valued” at work. Among the “all employees” who responded, some were supervisors and managers.

If the recent study noted above is on track, asking that same question (“Do you feel strongly valued at work?”) of supervisors and managers would result in fewer than 21 percent feeling consistently and strongly appreciated.

That’s not a healthy environment for productivity, inspiration, cooperation, and growth.

How can a middle manager lift themselves up, in the midst of demanding circumstances?

First, be clear on who you are as a person. You’re not a cog in a wheel – you’re an important human. You’re, in fact, one of the most important humans in your life.

By clarifying your personal constitution, you formalize your reason for being on this planet – in terms of how you serve others. You formalize your personal values and specify the behaviors you demonstrate when you’re living in alignment with your values, every day, in every interaction. You then formalize your leadership philosophy, outlining how you want to serve others so that agreed to commitments are delivered with little drama and much joy.

Second, share your personal constitution with your team members. By explaining your personal purpose, your values and behaviors, and your leadership philosophy, you set up a partnership with a valued teammate. You enable them to understand you better – and you invite their feedback when they see you behaving in ways that seem inconsistent with your personal constitution.

When you receive feedback – indicating alignment or mis-alignment with your personal constitution, thank people. Consider their feedback and refine your behaviors to more consistently live your purpose, values, and philosophy.

You might not be able to change your demanding circumstances but you can change the relationship you have with your primary customers – your team members.

What advice would you give middle managers?

About The Author

Articles By chris-edmonds
S. Chris Edmonds is a sought-after speaker, thought leader, author, and executive consultant. He writes books. He blogs and podcasts. He’s a working musician on the side.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Chris, you offer powerful advice. It is one of the best ways to “survive the job.” (I don’t even like to phrase it that way, but to be accurate…) Knowing you are maintaining your personal constitution, i.e. integrity to me, creates an excellent foundation, and models strength to your constituents.

My additional advice to middle managers and other employees who are in challenging, often thankless positions is to make sure your life is balanced. Shore up your relationships, hobbies, recreation, and/or a spiritual practice so that work doesn’t completely deplete you.

Chris Edmonds  |  09 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Thanks so much for your insights, Mary!

You bring up a hugely important element: life balance. That balance is our responsibility – if we give others control over our health, well-being, and relationships, we’ll not be fully able to serve ourselves or others effectively.



Hope Scott  |  09 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Chris, this is a great article. We are working on a similar activity stemming out of “Leadership Challenge,” where our coaches will define their own values, compare them to our organization’s epic values, share them with their teams, and discuss potential conflicts that can come from value differences. I like where you are going with this! It would be great to have an example of what this conversation would actually sound like.

Chris Edmonds  |  09 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Thanks so much, Hope! The path you’re taking with your coaches is a great one. Values conflicts occur when expectations are either 1) not clarified or 2) widely differing!

I go into some detail on how leaders can have these conversations (on both their personal constitution and their organizational constitution) in my book, The Culture Engine – That might be helpful –



Scott Mautz  |  09 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Great post Chris. Couldnt agree with you more on the power of keeping our purpose in front of us. It’s the Profound Why – why are we working so hard, spending so many hours away from loved ones – for what higher order reason? When we know our purpose and keep it front and cetner in our lives it gives our work greater significance, thus greater meaning, and so sustained motivation. And we have a choice to live everyday in support of, or in spite of our values. We all inherently know what to do here, but it is all too easy to lose the plot on this – the for the reminder!
Well done!
Scott Mautz

Chris Edmonds  |  10 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Thanks for your comments and insights, Scott! You’re absolutely right – we do have it in us to not only clarify our purpose and values, but to live them daily.



John E. Smith  |  10 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Chris – another interesting and thought-provoking post:)

The first thought that popped into my mind was that the middle manager situations you describe are very similar to what we have talked about for years in terms of generations: the Sandwich Generation issue.

Originally identified by Baby Boomers, but now recognized as an issue for all, the Sandwich Generation concept reinforces the reality that we have responsibilities, connections, and dynamics both up and down in the organizational hierarchy.

As conscientious leaders and followers, we are trying to meet expectations and needs at both ends … somewhat akin to burning a candle at both ends, at its worst.

I have nothing original enough to share regarding what middle managers ought to be aware of or do, but I will add my hearty endorsement to the essential idea that we have to be true to ourselves, living up to our personal philosophies, beliefs, and values.

Of course, that means we have to define those things which shape our behavior. I am sometimes surprised that others are not as into self-analysis as I am. This does lead to one issue:

“I’m too busy doing to think” and similar statements are often heard and, when it comes to knowing ourselves, as often wrong. In the same way that we need to move back from the process in order to identify the flaws, and consider not just what we are doing, but WHY we are doing it in terms of organizational goals and objectives, we also need to make time for thinking about ourselves.

This is not selfish, but ultimately might allow us to better serve others.

I would add that this is not a solitary activity. While we live our lives individually, we do so within the context of connection to others. I firmly believe that our best self-thinking occurs when we share it with non-judgmental others and invite feedback. Whether you use a coach or just a trusted confidant, I think we need to remember this: Life is a team sport.

Thanks for jogging the brain cells this morning:)


Chris Edmonds  |  10 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Great insights, John – I’m happy to jog brain cells!

Love the “doing” versus “being” clarity you bring. Us Westerners are much more likely to invest in doing without understanding who we are – how we’re treating others – while we’re doing things, and why – to what end – we’re “doing.”

I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s lumberjack metaphor from 7 Habits – gotta periodically climb a tree to ensure we’re logging right forest!



Mark Balaam  |  12 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi Chris,
Very interesting – I was thinking how this would play out over here in the U.K. Sharing personal thoughts on anything deeper than your views on the football (soccer) or Strictly Come Dancing results is treated with suspicion!
The main points that strike me is that you need be clear on your values and try and apply them consistently. As long as you are open to feedback and are seen to reflect and respond to it positively to increase your consistency will at least start the ball rolling. Although I am open to how it would be possible to get my group of up-tight Brits (me included) to see beyond the to do list.

Chris Edmonds  |  12 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Thank you for your comment, Mark! What you describe is what I hear about work teams around the globe – it’s normal.

What is also normal is an exclusive focus on results – which can open the door to people behaving badly to get those results. That’s a problem.

My experience is that being intentional about purpose and values – personally and for one’s team – evolves relationships beyond “cogs in a wheel”! Work can be a place of significance AND performance.

Thanks for letting my thoughts stir yours a bit!



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