Caught in the middle: Mental Health of middle managers

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About three years back a study about concentrations of fecal glucocorticoids in nine female Barbary macaques caught the imagination of science and management bloggers/ journalists.  The study was more methodological in nature, trying to see whether average concentrations of fecal glucoroticoids are a better measure of stress or those collected immediately after and correlated with some aspect of behavior a better measure, but what caught the fancy of the blogoshpere was a small paragraph embedded towards the end:

Female Barbary macaques have a despotic dominance style, characterized by asymmetrical dyadic interactions, often determined through the use of ritualized threats and displacement, as opposed to direct aggression (Preuschoft et al.,1998 ). When adrenal activity was compared between individuals according to their relative dominance rank, we found a non-linear relationship,with mid-rank females tending to exhibit higher,and often more variable fGCM concentration than high-rank, or lower-rank females.

Now to understand the above, we have to digress a bit into the physiology and psychology of stress. Macaques have a hierarchical social structure and use aggression/ threats and displacement to seal their position in the hierarchy.  These aggressive behaviors cause stress. Stress manifests as heightened activity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids in the body (and feces).  Bottom line, you can measure how stressed a macaque is by analyzing the glucocorticoid metabolite in the feces.

And what did they found? Tangential to their main hypothesis, they found that those macaques in the middle of the rank dominance were more stressed than those either high up the hierarchy or at the bottom.

And what are the most common asymmetrical power structures in human context—-its the workplace where power games are not too uncommon.  The authors themselves extended the analogy to middle managers (not in the article , but in their press briefs) and equated the ambition of middle managers, and the consequent conflict with both superiors and subordinates, as one of the reasons for the stress that middle mangers feel.

But is it really the case that middle managers are more stressed than those at the bottom of the hierarchy or those at the top? I have been a middle manager myself so should know, but instead of using anecdotes lets look at research again, this time from a study surveying nearly 22,000 full time workers.

What the researchers found was that middle managers were indeed more likely to be depressed or anxious than their top-ranking or bottom-of-the-pile counterparts. The study divided workers into owners/leaders; managers/ supervisors and workers and found elevated rates of depression and anxiety in middle managers and supervisors as compared to say workers and owners.

Of course one can speculate as to what factors may underlie such a state of affairs; but putting the two researches together, one can see that part of the reason may be the power dynamics that is involved in being a  boss as well as a subordinate at the same time. When the boss asks and puts pressure for something that is not possible in the given amount of time/ resources, the aggression is typically displaced to the subordinates and leads to conflicts and bad blood at both ends.  The middle manger is truly caught in the middle.

What is the way out? Being more assertive to superiors (without being aggressive/ ambitious/ stabbing-in-the-back kind of person) and not displacing aggressive impulses towards subordinates is one thing that comes to mind. The other is totally to stop seeing oneself as a boss or a powerful person and using more influence and persuasion to get things done rather than use authority or control ….this way you detach from the power and dominance hierarchy mindset.  Lastly create a fun climate for both your subordinates and a delightful experience for your managers. We can learn from macaques and chimpanzees to be aggressive or we can learn from bonobos to be more playful and loving. The choice is ours (and has important consequence for our well-being) !

Yesterday, I had written about how relationships are important for workplace well-being; as middle managers that are caught between superiors, colleagues and subordinates we can either get overwhelmed by the hellishness of other people; or we can use these myriad relationships to satisfy our need of relatedness and making a broader impact on the world around us. The choice again is ours!

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