Written by Miriam McCallum, Head of Development and Transformation
Leaders have a lot on their shoulders no matter the industry in which they work or the level at which they fall within an organizational chart. But recent studies have shown that those designations can impact their overall well-being at work. As reported by the Financial Times, Vitality Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (2022) surveyed 8,500 workers and found that middle managers were most likely to say they had experienced burnout compared with top executives or non-managers. They were also least likely to say they had good work-life balance.
The Times also reported the findings of an international study by Microsoft in September 2022, of 20,000 workers in 11 countries. The results found that 53% of managers felt they were burned out. There are many more surveys and studies out there confirming this is a problem, and it affects not just leaders and managers, but the entire organization.
What is the ‘squeezed middle?’
McKinsey describes this phenomenon as the ‘squeezed middle’ and refers to anyone between senior leadership and the front line. There are times, no matter where you are in an organization, when you will be the ‘squeezed middle’ – e.g. an executive between the Board and the organization, or an organization between its shareholders/investors and its customers. But for this scenario, I’m going to focus specifically on those in leadership roles who are sandwiched between high-level executives they report to and the individual contributors that they oversee.
So, what is causing this ‘squeezed middle’ effect? Where is this added pressure from both sides originating from?
The organizational hierarchy is one potential culprit. Middle managers are trying to balance the demands of both their team members and senior leadership. They are seeing a higher demand from their team for additional resources and support that, many times, they do not have in their artillery. It’s also important to factor in a changing work landscape where employee well-being and engagement need to be prioritized.
Combine that with a culture where leaders are pressuring those middle managers to deliver more with less due to factors such as an uncertain economic climate or workforce redundancies and those employee burnout statistics listed above make a lot of sense.
Recognizing middle manager burnout
All of these elements can contribute to what Barry Oshry terms as ‘system blindness.’ Oshry, a pioneer in the field of human system thinking, describes this as a disintegration where, in this disintegrated state:
“ …we fall into an ‘I’ mentality in which we experience ourselves as separate from our peers. In this state, we may often insert ourselves into other people’s issues and conflicts and make them our own.”
An example of these dysfunctional scenarios could be experiencing situations as threatening, when they are probably not because this is what we are learning to expect from the system.
Another example is when we reflexively connect with some parts of the system – e.g. those higher up – and reduce our connectivity to other parts of the system – e.g. those lower down. Or the other way around. This ‘system blindness’ can lead to managers providing an unintentional lower quality service to those they lead, manage, coach etc. because they are less knowledgeable about the wider system issues.
Have you ever experienced this? I know I have. In my first role as a manager, although it was many years ago, I can still remember the feeling as if it was yesterday. I felt like I had little in common with others and that I was always in some level of competition with those around me. I was evaluating others on surface issues and misunderstanding other’s intentions and actions. It certainly felt very personal – but the reality is that it wasn’t personal at all.
We need to remember that we always have a choice, and we have more choice than we think we do. We can actively choose not to see the scenarios as personal and when we do that, we can see the opportunity to positively affect it. We would all benefit from learning to ask qreat questions to help us see the system such as:
- What is needed, missing, or most wanted here?
- What is in my control?
- What can I do to improve this situation?
As Viktor Frankl wrote:
“There is a space between stimulus and response and in the space lies our freedom to choose. In that choice lies our freedom and our happiness.”
How to address middle manager burnout
The solution to address this employee burnout therefore is that we need to develop our ability to ‘see the system’ and leverage the power we have to reconnect with it. The challenge here is to maintain independence of thought and action in the service of the system. We must give up our need to please everyone and become system integrators instead. Oshry describes this opportunity:
“… as ‘middles’ your unique system power is to be system integrators, you are the system’s web, a bit like the nervous system of a human organism, connecting all the parts, coordinating their interaction, ensuring the flow of essential information and nutrients throughout the system.”
While this may seem overwhelming, group coaching is a newer methodology that middle managers can leverage to address their burnout and start to lessen the weight on their shoulders. Some benefits of taking this approach include:
- Group coaching is focused on facilitating conversations that explore concerns, process emotions, leverage self-awareness, and help to work through challenges in a safe and confidential space. Using a systemic lens enables participants to ‘see their system’ as a whole and the context within which they are operating.
- Working collaboratively with others towards a common goal creates an accountability system that can make all the difference in the pursuit of achieving goals. It is a powerful process that encourages mindset and behavioral change, and ultimately transforms leadership style as a whole.
- Group coaching also provides support and encouragement from shared experiences, allowing participants to gain practical insight from different perspectives. This process where each person feels heard and understood is reassuring that they are not alone in their struggle to balance all the demands of the position.
- Such connections build social capital, and the relationships fostered through group coaching create a sense of community. These networks stand the test of time beyond these sessions and emphasize the lasting positive effect that group coaching provides.
The consequences of employee burnout are quite tangible: negative impacts on employee well-being, feelings of being overwhelmed, disconnecting with their career, and decreased productivity to name a few. Addressing this – especially in a group like middle managers who have proven to be particularly vulnerable to it – should become a priority for any organization and group coaching sessions are a great place to begin.