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This is the Reason Your Middle Managers are Stressed

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Today’s workplace is experiencing a culture clash between the top and bottom — between the old “waterfall” ways of managing and the new “Agile” ways of the modern workplace.

Management at the top is still operating under outdated silo, or “waterfall,” practices. These waterfall practices within the management structure are characterized by hierarchical decisions that trickle down from above.

In this model, each silo manager focuses on their own discipline versus working with their peers as a multi-disciplinary team. Decisions come as a mandate, or as a thinly-veiled “opportunity to provide input.” Whereas the waterfall method takes a top-down approach, the Agile method is horizontal.

What does this mean for today’s workforce?

For managers in the hierarchical ranks, it’s pre-Agile, waterfall culture all over again. But for the operational, customer-focused Agile teams at the bottom of the hierarchy, work life is running much smoother. By in large, their workdays are the standard eight hours a day, 40 hours a week — sometimes even less. They’re operating with great efficacy and efficiency. And they’re happy and satisfied with their work.

For managers in the middle, however, the workplace looks a lot different. They take the brunt of the culture clash. They’re getting sandwiched between the command and control of the waterfall hierarchy and the autonomy of the Agile culture. They get hit with an influx of different priorities from every which way from various stakeholders “providing input.”

And managers are suffering for it.

In fact, a study published in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness in August revealed that middle managers were significantly more likely to suffer symptoms of depression and anxiety than their counterparts at the top or bottom of the corporate ladder.

The study, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers, found that 18 percent of the supervisors and 16 percent of managers were estimated to suffer from depression, compared to only 12 percent of regular workers and 11 percent of leadership. What’s more, they were nearly twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

Middle managers are stressed. They’re working long hours and in a seemingly eternal mode of catch-up. The result is stress and disempowerment, which ultimately leads to attrition. These mid-level managers constantly have to muster all they have to fight another day, only to end up feeling overwhelmed and ineffective.

It’s slightly better for managers at the top, but not by much. They see their managers struggling to keep their heads above water and, as a result, senior managers feel like their backs are up against the wall with the constraints of creating accountability for results, the mounting attrition of their managers, and their current systems and processes that are in obvious need of improvement.

Why is this happening?

Middle managers are literally caught in the middle due to the waterfall management practices of yesterday. These traditional hierarchical leadership structures and practices work in opposition to organizational agility.

The practices of driving alignment and managing expectations through a hierarchical management structure conflict with the flexible, creative, and innovative Agile culture that currently exists within 50 percent to 75 percent of the companies with technology initiatives. Source: 2015 State of Scrum Report

What’s the solution?

Merely scaling Agile teams up does not create business agility. It’s adopting the Agile culture — employing Agile practices and Agile thinking and working as a multi-disciplinary team — that will lead to true business agility. This is the behavioral shift that’s needed. That shift comes from changes in structure, process, and thinking — just like the Agile software teams learned to do a decade ago.

My company has led and coached countless Agile software development teams to work as a cohesive unit in achieving project success. And for the past few years, we’ve been leveraging this experience and skill by implementing the Agile culture within senior leadership, so that companies realize the team-based culture that the competitive business landscape demands today.

We’ve found this transition can be made easy — and painless — by doing the following:

  • Training: The first step to any successful transition is training. Short, group training programs that involve a company’s leadership are a must.
  • Adoption: Training programs are followed by the management team’s choice and action in proceeding in an entirely team-based collaborative structure.
  • Coaching: Sustainable behavior changes are achieved through one-on-one executive coaching to habitualize the new practices and thinking.

In an upcoming article on Agile leadership, we’ll look at what’s needed to be a successful leader in this new Agile work environment — stay tuned.