Stuck in the Middle - the Woes of Middle Management | David Couper Consulting


Stuck in the Middle - the Woes of Middle Management

Posted by David A. Couper, MA on November 06, 2019 12:23 PM
Stuck in the Middle - the Woes of Middle Management

I travel fairly often, and I'm lucky that I’m regularly able to pick an aisle seat.  But at 6'2", the few times that I got the middle seat, I thought I might not get through the flight.  Many middle managers feel the same way at work.

So how are they stuck in the middle seat?  Being a middle manager, you are not senior, or executive leadership, nor are you a frontline employee.

The senior leader has overall responsibility and has the pressure of keeping the Board happy and many external and internal stakeholders, but they also make the big bucks.  We have all seen how CEO's salaries have grown. The gap between workers and senior leaders is much bigger than it used to be.  They also have people to help them and support them both at work and home.  As CEO of my own company, I am incredibly fortunate that I can afford help and have some assistance from my team with my ever-changing schedule and, as a single dad, had a fantastic nanny when my son was younger.

As a frontline employee, you often don't have the stress of managing a team. Although you have fixed hours at work, you can leave it behind when you leave for the day.  Of course, you make less money.  You may be working two or even three jobs, so you are physically tired but maybe less tired mentally.  My first job was washing dishes at a hotel (by hand, this was the 80's) at age 15 in my hometown.  I also worked for my parents in their hotel waiting tables until I was in my 20's.  It's hard work, and there is stress, but the worries are different.  You may be frustrated by not having control of your work or being required to do things that don't make sense.

Middle managers and supervisors often have both sets of problems.  They have responsibility for their department or team and need to be hands-on getting things done.

So what can a middle manager do to cope? 

Be Clear of Your Future Career Goals

Each goal has a different strategy. 

  • Are you looking to be the next big cheese?
  • Are you happy where you are?
  • Are you uncomfortable with the pressure?


If you want to be promoted to be at an executive level, you need to understand what it takes.  Watch successful leaders.  Learn how to take on more responsibility without burning out.  Do great work and get yourself noticed.

One senior leader said he always noticed people who not only gave him what he wanted when asked for a report but also thought about what he was going to do with this.  For example, if they knew he was going to have to share it with his boss, it was beneficial to have a one-page executive summary with the main report.

If you are happy where you are, that's great. Just be sure you're valued.  Work smart, not just hard.  The problem with the status quo?  People take you for granted.  They get used to you taking care of things.  Make sure that you not only do the great work you usually do, but you also take on new projects and promote what you do. I had a client who prided herself on taking the projects that other people didn't want.  Her office always saw her as a team player and a valuable asset.

If you don't like managing, accept that and work out how you can move to a lesser role.  Less money may be available for non-managerial positions. But if management isn't your thing, look at how you can move away from said role.

We coached a newly promoted manager who realized he wasn't happy and went back to his old job with more patient contact.  To me, that is a successful coaching assignment because he is comfortable, and his performance is excellent. The organization can now place someone who wants to be in the management role.

How Do You Stop Being Squeezed Like Toothpaste From a Tube?

Realize You Aren't Responsible for Everything.

I had a client who was very upset about her department's issues.  She was responsible for one team, so we talked about how the overall departmental problems were her boss' responsibility even thought the whole department had impact on some of her team's issues.

How can you do this for yourself?

  • Make sure that you communicate what you do to your boss and colleagues. Sometimes people only know what you do when you are not there.  Bosses and colleagues often don't realize what you do and what level of work it entails to get it right.
  • Be careful of making something look so easy that it seems like it is too easy rather than you are an experienced expert.
  • Say "no," but without it sounding like no.  Sometimes middle managers can say avoid saying no only to get so frustrated that they say "no" at the worst time. 

Be OK with being the middle.  The last time I found myself stuck in the middle, I reframed it.  I was lucky to get home 2 hours earlier by taking the last seat.  And then I had a great conversation with one of my seatmates


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