I’m planning to write a business book this year . I’ve been mulling on it for far too long, and every year that goes by it seems to me that the case for the book gets more compelling. In this article I’d like to do a wee bit of research in an attempt to validate the book’s proposition.

Over nearly 20 years I have spent thousands of days in training rooms around the world with people who are what I shall call loosely mid-career.  They share with me and each other how they feel about their job, their career, their frustrations and challenges, and how they see the future.

squeezedIt’s a bit of a bleak picture, to be honest.  They are hurting, and in many cases either don’t know what to do about it, or don’t feel able to make a change. You might say they feel stuck.

Even more depressingly, many of them have lost sight of the fact that they are hurting.  They have fallen asleep at the wheel, and don’t recognise it.  They are plodding down a path waiting for something to happen.  Meanwhile their families are growing up, their skills become less useful and they become less personally marketable.  The clock is ticking.

Where are they hurting?  It’s a pretty long list, but let me try and summarise.  This is not going to make for easy reading I suspect.

  1.  Low levels of trust, borne out of weak relationships, borne out of lack of time and budget to build those relationships.  Where people don’t trust each other they can’t collaborate, and if they can’t collaborate they can’t survive in a complex matrix based working environment.  Work/life balance is an outdated concept.  There is now a grim acceptance that there is never going to be a balance, and instead organisations talk about “Work/life integration.”  Your work is going to intrude on your personal life, and you need to have the ability to deal with that without moaning.

2.  Insecurity and fear are endemic.  The fears are numerous, but the main one is fear of becoming irrelevant and falling behind technically.  As the millennials start to overtake them, deploying new skills and attitudes which are seen as more current, the 30-somethings fear not being seen as adding enough value.  If cuts are going to be made, they could be next.

3.  The “more with less” mantra has ground away for too many years, so that there is no meat left on the bone.  Starved of resources, and yet still being asked to increase productivity, the mid-career manager has nowhere left to turn.  The pressure continues to bear down from above, whilst the people in their teams are looking to them for more support.  This truly is the “squeezed middle”, and it is the hardest job in the world.

4.  Outdated, cumbersome and irrelevant processes and procedures are overwhelming them.  On average these people only spend 2 days per week doing value add activity.  The rest is sucked away by time wasting meetings, an incessant barrage of email and other noise and trying to pick their way through the almost impenetrable fog of “tools” so they can get stuff done.  A few years ago they had the energy to try and fix all this.  Having been hit on the head a few times and told to get back in their box, it’s easier to shut up and get on with it.  If you stick your head out you will be seen as being difficult and this will be held against you.

5.  They have been exposed to a directive style of management for so long that deep down many of these talented individuals have turned into Children.  In essence they are waiting to be told what to do next, and have given up being proactive.  Coaching is rare, and where it does take place the preferred style is Directing, so that it is more akin to on the job training – a very different dynamic which fails to develop them the way it could.

The result is an exhausted, frustrated and under-achieving middle layer.  The annual Gallup Employee Engagement survey continues to report 70% or so of employees not actively engaged in the business they work in.  They are capable of so much more.

How much of this list can you relate to?  Have I somehow over 20 years just got unlucky with the people I have been working with?  Have I picked up a severely distorted impression of how things are out there these days?

If so please do challenge me.  I know there are plenty of examples of where my list does not apply, but I am confident that there is a pattern here, and am doing my best to call it objectively.

What’s your experience?  Please do comment.

Image source:  step4success

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