Why Being a Manager Is So Hard—And What To Do About It

So much responsibility, so little power. So many tasks, so little time. Such high expectations, so little trust. So much accomplished, so little to show for it. Is management the worst role in the company?


You Thought Managers Had Power

At some point in your career, you aspired to be a manager. It represented a significant step in your climb up a ladder that most assuredly led to Xanadu… a world where you would get to call the shots but not actually have to make them. A young associate on my team recently reviewed current manager development resources and reported back a litany of complaints from most middle managers. Middle managers have little power. The position is hard, stressful, inordinately frustrating, and is often a fast track to burnout. I asked him if he still wanted to be a manager one day. “Yes. Absolutely. I can’t wait,” he cheerfully replied. Mental models die hard.

You Became a Great Individual Contributor

You started with great ambitions. You learned the job. You put in the time. You made some mistakes, but you emerged mostly unscathed. Perhaps you hit a few bumps, but you figured out how to navigate them and returned stronger than ever. Regardless, you learned to do things that others couldn’t or wouldn’t, and you were recognized for your contributions. You were rewarded with a little more money and a lot more responsibility. You were proud. You had an opportunity to tackle things that you thought would be big difference-makers.

Perhaps somewhere along the way, though, your prodigious efforts exceeded the recognition and rewards, which may have tapered off or ceased altogether.

You Wanted to Be an Awesome Manager

As it turns out, our management ideal persists, regardless of the hard truth. Despite growing wary, exhausted, skeptical, and eventually unmotivated, we remain optimists, because the promises of management are intoxicating. Share the workload! Teach others what you know! Cultivate a sense of team! Become the great leader you always knew you could be! And moreover, live and work in the belly of the beast… be the difference between getting the work done and jeopardizing the organization’s success.

Wait, What?

Over time, the incongruity is overwhelming. Our instinct is to perhaps place blame. Maybe we had poor role models. Maybe the onboarding experience was useless. Maybe the manager training was informative but impractical. Maybe we’re doing it wrong. Maybe the velocity of change happening in our market – just as we were promoted – was responsible. (Who could have foreseen such a thing? Terrible luck.) Perhaps there is a course. A book. A podcast. A mentor.

You Committed to Learning

So we search for help. For answers. The books seem promising. They offer such simple solutions… we can’t believe we didn’t think of them ourselves! Build better relationships with our superiors; show them we can be trusted. Do the same with our teams. Delegate more. Tell people what they’re doing well (and poorly) with a more earnest and emotional delivery. Celebrate and appreciate our people. Come to your boss with only solutions. Set boundaries. Stop spending so much time responding to emails. Sure. No sweat. But also: no improvement. We’re still doing it wrong.

We try different books. It doesn’t take long to notice there might be conflicting evidence out there. Should we Dare to Lead or Dare to Un-Lead? Should we Lean In or Lean Out? What could we do to improve that one frustrating work relationship? Can we really fix it in one minute? Are we an advice monster or do we have a self-confidence problem? Perhaps a book will not not be that helpful after all.

You Tried to Learn Harder

The amount of digital content available to us has exploded. We conscientiously check out management podcasts and videos, but they seem further demoralizing because we are introduced to yet another thinker… one who has somehow overcome middle management mediocrity and now lives the relaxed, enviable life as an advice-giver. We’re pitched into the Alice in Wonderland of management influencers, with the variety of subcultures claiming to have all the answers (if we simply change everything about ourselves), and the vast variety of perspectives on whether we should be wasting our time managing people in the first place. The best case scenario is more specific, but impractical or useless, advice. The worst case is further confirmation of the nagging feeling that we’re doing it wrong.

We seek out a mentor, someone who has been in our shoes, who knows the ropes. Someone who sees our suffering and can help, who can give us the ingredients for the secret recipe. We ultimately find that should such a person even exist, there is no way they can possibly carve out enough time to be that mentor. We keep searching. 

You Blamed Yourself

Maybe it’s more of a personal problem. Yoga? Meditation? A visit to an ashram or naturopathic physician? (Who can afford these things?!?) Revisit your hobbies? Pick up a new one. Exercise. Eat right. Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep at night. Every night. Have date nights with your spouse. Be present with your children. Stop responding to work emails at home. 

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

You realize you’re more than just frustrated and exhausted. Now you’re angry. Maybe you are doing it wrong. This is not fair. You’re trapped.


The World Shifted

Consider the current landscape of management roles and ways organizations have responded to the changes over the last decade.

First, research shows that manager roles are shifting toward increased responsibility. Last year, Gartner reported that middle managers have 51% more responsibility than they can effectively handle; the more on your plate, the more diffuse your attention. Do you dedicate less attention to more things, or let go of some things entirely? Either way, you’re destined to feel mediocre (at best).

Second, manager roles increasingly include multifarious responsibilities ranging from individual contributions, to budget management, to talent development. At the same time, these roles are increasingly subject to more scrutiny and given fewer resources as organizations strive toward overall efficiency. This results in managers being in the impossible position of being responsible for outcomes without the advantage of making the strategic choices that drive true efficiency and sustainability, either for themselves or their organizations.

McKinsey alumni write in Power to the Middle, in response to the innovations in how work is done (e.g., electronic communications, automation, etc.), middle managers have adapted their roles in order to keep themselves efficacious. (This has come at a price, though; rather than rethinking or what roles managers can most critically play in each new iteration of the workforce, managers’ plates are fuller than ever.) Remote and hybrid roles in the post-COVID era have become a flashpoint, forcing a reckoning between what managers expect and what employees are willing to do. Some managers have expressed frustration that they must make an argument for why employees must return to work. Frustrating though it may be, employees now (perhaps rightfully) expect justification for expectations that were previously  taken for granted.

Third, most manager-development efforts are not very good (if they exist at all). Research is limited on how management strategies are constructed, but it is likely that managers develop their own management style by creating a hybrid of what they experienced from their own managers with what they think they can do better. Research of teaching faculty who have never been taught to teach offers a model for how this happens, but reveals that the outcomes are not particularly impressive. This intuitive management is only one strategy that makes managers effective over time, but might be a big reason why many “fail” (are remediated, or leave) in their roles.

Fourth, manager training, even if done well, is not an effective tool for developing good managers. Recent research by Gartner has shown that simply investing in skill building only yields a 4% return on skills improvement. Although the majority of medium and large organizations now possess a professional learning budget along with manager training programs, most are ineffective in helping managers improve.

The Role Stagnated

What you feel today is the squeeze between evolving demands on the workplace and a misdiagnosis of managers’ underlying problems. It should be clear that while managers have increased responsibility (which organizational leaders recognize as a problem), neither the awareness nor the attempted solutions have made much of a difference. Managers don’t need to manage all things better. Managers need to focus on fewer things, with the goal of bigger impact. As entrepreneurship guru Michael Gerber wrote in the now classic The eMyth Revisited, people do not scale; systems do. And a poorly designed system will systematically create poor outcomes. Adding more to managers’ plates does not constitute an evolution of the role—it simply makes the role a trash heap of tasks. To fix this, organizations must recognize and begin to make critical choices about what really is most important.

The Employee Social Contract Is Being Renegotiated

Something else revolutionary is happening. The workforce is increasingly unwilling to trade what Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez call their “life force energy” for whatever terms their employer is offering. The nature of work is shifting in ways that will affect nearly every role in the workplace. During the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately following, employees mounted increasingly expansive campaigns for flexibility and benefits. While many of those benefits are receding, some foundational expectations remain:

  • Employees are still making choices about employers on the basis of the candidates’ social impact missions and values alignment
  • Employees still want flexibility—and they want flexibility over most other popular benefits (e.g., meals, game rooms, dry cleaning, etc.)
  • Employees are still changing jobs because they want better alignment between what they really desire, and the expectations and opportunities available to them 
  • Younger members of the workforce are far less willing to dedicate years doing work in which they are not engaged in the interest of an anticipated payoff later. More managers who toiled early in their careers in pursuit of management and leadership roles are struggling now to find interested and agreeable talent while meeting increased expectations for productivity. You need help.


Acknowledge and Address, but Don’t Wallow

In my line of work, I meet a lot of people seeking help after experiencing various traumas, both professionally and personally. Some minimize the experience, hoping that leaving it in the past will make it disappear, while others prefer to rehash it, over and over, with the hopes of making it go away. Neither of these coping mechanisms is typically effective. We focus instead on naming and explaining the experience as best we can, mining for lessons or growth opportunities. We then decide which lessons can be used and what actions are best, allowing us to move forward.

While this process is uncomplicated, it isn’t easy and it isn’t always fast. It can also be applied to cases that aren’t necessarily traumatic but could become traumatic if not processed effectively. Are you a manager in some stage of trauma or overwhelm? Start by acknowledging where you really are. Can you accept that it doesn’t have to be this way—and commit to finding an effective way forward? 

You’re The One You’ve Been Waiting For

Many managers we work with lament the broken systems and cultures that surround them. Of course they wish things could be different. But they focus their energy on the top layers of the organization, or on particularly toxic individuals who seem to be the key to keeping things from getting better. Energy is better dedicated to the work within your control.

To help reframe, we start with an exercise you can do yourself. First, draw two concentric circles with plenty of room to write lists in each. Then, in the center circle, list only the things you can control. In the second circle, list the things you can influence. Outside of the larger circle, write down the things that you cannot control or influence. Now, take a look at your exercise. Consider what your day would look like if you spent 80% of your energy and attention on what you can control, and 20% on what you can influence — and 0% on which you have no control or influence. What can you do right now to redirect your energy and attention to productive activity?

Outcomes Management

You may be looking at your concentric circles activity and thinking you see very little in the center circle that would alleviate your management pain points. Here is your opportunity to recognize that if you cannot change your reality, then you must change your mindset. Believing you must do all the things gets in your way of effectively doing the most important things.

Take a step back. Conduct an accounting of what you must accomplish to be successful in your role. Your initial list may be long, but it should be comprehensive. When complete, prioritize. Next, add a short description of what happens when you do the work, and what would result if you didn’t. This should reveal ways you can reduce your burden. Drop anything that would be fine without you. Create plans to outsource or delegate things that could be done by someone else, even if training is required.

Force Hard Choices

There are likely items left on your list that still need to be addressed—items you cannot eliminate or delegate, and are beyond your capacity to do well, if at all. It may be time to advocate for yourself and your role. Before approaching organizational leaders, take your list, review your defined priorities and try—hard, creatively—to solve these remaining items. After you have exhausted all avenues of resolution, develop and suggest solutions to your leaders. This process allows you to explore your capabilities as a manager, while giving you the confidence to advocate for solutions.  

Talent! Talent! Talent!

It’s no secret that managers make the job for employees. Managers are the lynchpin—acquiring the right talent for the right role—and the ones who ensure that work environments are conducive to maximum engagement. Historically, we thought of managers in terms of ensuring work gets done, driving quality, and delivering outcomes. While that remains true, the master key is now, more clearly, employee engagement. When engagement is high, so is the quality of collaboration, work product, and outcomes, as well as the efficiency of all three. Now that clarity about what you can handle has been established, the next frontier is clarity about who is on your team and the work they’re doing. Have you aligned their interests, abilities, and capacities to their work, ensuring maximum engagement? How can you further support them?

Find Your Squad

Excelling as a manager is, in many ways, like being a relentless warrior… suiting up for the battle ahead, not knowing what’s coming but working tirelessly to be prepared. That kind of work can be exhausting and demoralizing, if not thankless and painful. That doesn’t mean it isn’t critical work that requires courageous leaders.

Do not take the path alone. There are millions more on a similar journey, preparing for the same battles. Find those people who, like you, are dedicated to making work better for their teams so that their work only gets better and better.