Fear and Loathing in Middle Management

When you think about being a boss, what comes to mind first is usually a higher salary. You don’t necessarily envision downsides like fear and loathing. Or despair.

As a federal supervisor on and off for 17 years, I’ve lost count of the times I have delivered negative feedback, been brought in to deliver bad news, or heard my name invoked as a threat. That also goes for the times I have been named as a witness or respondent in grievances and EEO complaints.

Of course, being a boss isn’t all about delivering bad news to employees. There’s also the part where you get to deliver bad news to your boss, or your boss’s boss. Then there’s the part where your boss tells you to do things your subordinates will hate – things you’ll hate too but have to explain all the same.

“You’re there so they can all hate you,” my father said helpfully when I called up to vent during my first experience as a middle manager. When your boss thinks you aren’t pushing hard enough and your direct reports think you are pushing too hard, it’s easy to feel like the proverbial bad guy.

My repeated Google searches in moments of despair – um, professional curiosity – for “supervisor feels guilty” or “being a supervisor is emotionally exhausting” directed me to volumes of literature on the emotional impact of bad supervisors on subordinates.

Nonetheless, Harvard Business Review and The Atlantic in 2015 both highlighted research demonstrating that middle managers are more likely to experience depression than business owners or non-supervisory workers. The combination of high responsibility for results and limited authority to influence outcomes leaves them with the sense that they have only themselves to blame.

I know my boss needs to know what’s happening, but it doesn’t keep me from dreading his reaction when I tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. I know I have to give feedback and enforce rules, but it doesn’t mean I enjoy delivering criticism. When I feel overwhelmed, sometimes I turn to my preferred meditation for when the strain of being a middle-manager starts getting to me.


Kate Yemelyanov is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply