More than two decades ago, when I was designing commercial training products, I worked on a ground-breaking project. The central premise was that mid-level managers faced a profoundly unique challenge, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place as they balanced, navigated, and frequently absorbed the pressures from those who reported to them and those to whom they reported. Today, such a “bold” concept would be greeted with a big “duh” as it’s widely accepted that middle managers are in an increasingly untenably stressful position. News reports routinely explore the consequences of living in this vocational vice.
The struggle is real – and universal.
Unfortunately, however, this is no longer exclusively a middle management issue. No doubt, middle managers continue to feel the squeeze between the frontline and executives within their organizations. And today, it’s amplified as they wrestle with new remote and hybrid working configurations (and sometimes each other) regarding who works where and when.
But frontline individual contributors are feeling it, too. Over the past few years, many reports that customer expectations have grown while their tolerance and grace have shrunk. Supply chain issues, persistent delays, inflation, and other factors have resulted in customers who are more challenging than ever to sell to, service, and satisfy. But the pressure isn’t coming from just one side. Frontline workers now feel the squeeze as they balance this with the heightened demands their managers continue to place upon them.
And, of course, the C-suite is not immune to these dynamics. Executives also find themselves in precarious positions during these tumultuous times as they navigate the needs of everyone within the organization. This includes shareholders with heightened economic concerns that must be staved off with quarter-after-quarter results.
A vice-like grip has descended upon us all – regardless of role or level, amplifying other personal and professional pressures and contributing to unprecedented levels of burnout and mental health struggles. This isn’t healthy. And it’s not sustainable. Something must be done now to ease the current squeeze – while people still have some juice left in them.
Ease the squeeze
If you’re feeling the squeeze, you’re not alone. Here are four steps you can take to reduce the pressure and give yourself – and those whom you lead – the space needed to breathe, think, and perform more effectively.
1. Map it out
Events and experiences layer upon each other, resulting in many in an amorphous, ambiguous, and overriding sense of angst. That’s when it’s critical to step back and clarify exactly what’s happening. Take a sheet of paper and draw yourself in the center. Then, identify the sources of pressure, creating arrows pointing at you in the middle. Go back and highlight or make the most challenging pressures bigger or darker. Just getting it out of our heads and labeling the dynamics is a significant first step toward loosening the vice.
2. Discuss expectations
The “artwork” described above can be a helpful tool for facilitating a conversation around expectations with your manager. What’s most critical today? What might have fallen off the priority list without you being aware of it? Which of your goals most directly support your manager’s? Dialogue can help align both thinking and effort in a way that can reduce the pressure and offer greater clarity when feeling the squeeze.
3. Deselect non-value-added activities
“Deselection” is something I hear a lot about from the organizations with which I work. It’s counterintuitive in these escalating expectations, yet the activity acknowledges that we just keep piling more on our plates, never removing anything. Today, less is more, and success demands distinguishing (and acting upon) the must-haves versus nice to-haves.
4. Ask for help
None of us is in this alone. Work is a team sport. So, during times when the squeeze feels extreme, recruit those around you for the support you need. Call a “time out” when the pressures from one side or another are too great and ask for reinforcements. And return the favor. Research finds that helping others is a powerful strategy for reducing one’s own stress.
Let’s face it. Customers will likely not begin expecting less any time soon. And neither will shareholders. We can count on business and performance pressures to persist. That’s why it’s time for leaders and individuals alike to recognize the natural tension that exists – and to ensure that they’re taking steps to appease the unease of the squeeze.