June 28, 2022

From the trenches: Hearing from middle managers

In the second part of our series, hear firsthand what middle managers have to say about burnout, organisational communication, management style, and more.

In the first post in our middle manager series, we looked at research related to the challenges facing middle managers. However, I was curious to learn what middle managers themselves have been thinking. I consulted a diverse panel of four:  

  • Daniel Cook, director of human resources at the law firm Mullen & Mullen 
  • Luke Horrocks, inventory analyst at vehicle salvage company Scrap My Car 
  • Lorraine Lee, editorial director at Prezi
  • Colleen Acanto, a fast casual restaurant chain manager 

Colleen’s real identity has been withheld to protect her privacy.  

What was your biggest fear as a middle manager during the pandemic? 

Luke: I think we were all quite worried about our jobs and what would happen to the company. No one knew which industry would be affected the most, obviously apart from retail. With the focus of our business being collecting damaged cars, the fact that no cars would really be on the road was incredibly concerning. 

Colleen: I feared my staff wouldn’t show up. Of course, I wanted them to put their health and safety first, but we also had a business that was still open during the pandemic.  

Did you feel burned out, and if so, how did you cope with that? 

Daniel: Yes. Sometimes, at work, I reach my maximum mental capacity to digest information and utilise it productively. This is when I realise that I am exhausted and am facing burnout. Usually, when I am burned out, I feel emotionally frustrated and physically drained. Often, it can lead to severe migraines that affect my work quality and mood. There have been times I’ve felt fatigued to the point where I am forced to take a half day and leave work early. I definitely believe in taking constant breaks during work so I’m able to focus and I reward myself for completing tasks. It motivates me to do more. 

Luke: I never felt burned out during the pandemic. I think working from home gave me some comfort in a strange way. Post pandemic, our business has hit levels we haven’t seen for a long time, so getting back into the swing of things was quite a struggle initially. Long hours to catch up and little social time started to affect me. 

What was an aspect of your management style that you changed during or after COVID-19? 

Luke: While we were hit by the pandemic, we had to focus on different areas of the business than we had before, so I assigned new tasks like going through existing stock or revamping our storage areas. I also started meeting with my team every morning for a general catch-up and to check in on how everyone was coping with the at-home work environment. 

Lorraine: With the shift to remote work, I saw that I needed to become a lot more intentional with general communication and feedback to my team. I recall one time when some managers hosted a virtual happy hour, and one of our quietest employees was really talkative. This was a clear sign to us that he was craving connection and we needed to create more touchpoints for that. 

While making sure your direct reports were taken care of, how did you keep your own boss in the loop? 

Lorraine: In pre-pandemic times, it was easier for your boss to know what you were working on because you were in the office together. You could have watercooler chats in which you'd bring up an exciting idea or connect the dots between different teams. Now, us middle managers need to be our own best advocates. I meet one-on-one with my manager weekly and provide them with a single, easy-to-read document with the most important updates. 

Colleen: I work at a franchise, and the owner isn’t around a lot. There have been a lot of times when I’ve asked how they want to receive information and have needed to get permission to handle an issue that might come up out of the blue. Generally, I feel that there’s no such thing as too much communication, but I’ve also realised that sometimes I won’t get answers and will have to move forward confidently anyway. 

Thanks to my panel of middle managers for sharing their experiences so openly and thoughtfully. It was inspiring to hear that despite a high level of uncertainty, middle managers are committed to caring both for themselves and their organisations, regardless of organisational hurdles or management style. 

In the next post, we’ll begin tackling solutions for supporting the Lukes, Daniels, Lorraines, and Colleens in your organisation.

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit is an author, consultant, speaker, and workplace expert. She has written several career advice books, and was formerly a nationally syndicated career columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Alexandra is currently a partner at organisational development firm PeopleResults.

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