Ever Feel Like You’re Being Squeezed? 7 Tips for Managing from the Middle

Kermit the Frog sang: It’s Not Easy Being Green.  I have found myself on my own lily pad – the cushioned chair in my office – once or twice strumming my banjo singing: It’s not that easy being in middle management (hopefully, on key).

Being in the middle is hard. No one likes to say it but it’s true. Being in the middle means someone, or in a lot of cases, someones (plural), from the top delegates projects and tasks to you and expects great things. Being in the middle means your staff may bring you obstacles to overcome so they can do their jobs effectively.

Being in the middle is a state of constant problem solving. Your schedule is never the same every day. You better be a great listener, have some empathy and a knack for managing conflict. Sometimes, we folks in the middle leave our place of work at 6 (or 7 or 8) saying to ourselves: What did I get done today?

Now, being in the middle can also be a very rewarding place as you have the ability to exceed the demands of the top and help your staff achieve their best every day. When conflicts get negotiated and tough nuts get cracked open, there can be nothing more fulfilling.

I am the last of 3 children. My middle brother always lamented to me that I didn’t understand how hard it was to be the middle child. Heck, they even have an official name for it – middle child syndrome. Now that I have been a middle manager for a number of years, I think I get it.

Our older brother would dump all of his chores on him, unfairly, so he could go be with his girlfriend, and I would whine to him about my dollhouse not having enough furniture or about the fact that I wanted to watch Bugs Bunny not Johnny Quest. Clearly, a tough place to be.

So, how can we make being in the middle easier? Here are 7 Tips I have learned over the years for making it a good place to be:

  1. Block Time Every Day. This may not be a popular choice but having at least one hour of non-meeting time a day is critical for thinking, listening to a team member or handling emergencies. These come up so better be prepared for them. When we don’t have time, the situation can get more stressful.
  2. Be Visible. This is one I still struggle with but believe it is important. In today’s virtual world, it is very easy to work from home and hide behind your IM account. However, I make sure to be in the office at least once or twice a week so I can be seen and not just heard. It goes a long way in helping people when interactions can be face-to-face.
  3. Clarify Expectations. Something that took me years to figure out was it is okay to clarify expectations from the top. Sometimes, we want to be so eager and accommodating to accept any challenge that we simply say “yes” and then realize we’re not entirely sure what the objective is. Time with the top is challenging but I have found asking a few checking questions is critical.
  4. Don’t Be a “Yes” Person. One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to say “No”. No matter how high up you are in the organization, a leader still needs help prioritizing. I think the best way to engage a C-Level Person is to ask him/her to review the list of projects/objectives on your dance card and ask that person to star the top 5 – anything over 5 will not be quality.
  5. Be a Human Mirror. The most liberating action for a middle manager is to not position yourself to be the only problem solver. When your team brings you problems, the first question I ask is: What do you think? Or, what do you recommend? This is a basic psychology method to help people work through their own problems. Chances have it, they have something to say even though they don’t share it to begin with.
  6. Don’t Accept Monkeys. One of my managers used to have a sign on her desk that read: “No Monkeys Accepted Here.” So, if you walked in to her office with a monkey, or burden, on your back she would help you think it through but she refused to take it on as her own problem. As managers, it is difficult to not want to help your team but taking on all of their burdens will only burn you out, which won’t help them in the long run.
  7. Dis Your Banjo. Channeling Kermit and sulking in our isolated offices doesn’t always help us find our way through a difficult situation. Occasionally, it’s okay to commiserate with a confidant at work. I know…this may not be the professional thing to do but sharing challenges with 1 – 2 people can help you to know that you’re not alone and they may even have been there themselves and have a solution for you.

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