At one time or another, you’ve no doubt heard reference to the dreaded “Middle Child Syndrome,” a favorite whipping boy for psychologists, whether of the academic or the armchair variety.

As someone who personally lived through such an often-traumatic childhood, I’m here to share an inescapable fact: It’s real, baby.

Oh sure, some studies found that since middle children have to negotiate between older and younger siblings, and have to be articulate in order to be heard, they’re excellent at eloquently presenting their points.

But many more studies note that because middle children must try harder to get noticed, they generally feel that they don’t get the same praise as other siblings for accomplishments such as tying one’s shoes or learning to ride a bike.

As a USA Today story some years ago noted, “The oldest child is always a source of parents’ special pride, whereas the baby of the family basks in the sentimentality of being the last child, and is basically spoiled rotten.”

Amen to that!

Most pernicious, however, are the findings reported in the book The Social Outcast,” by Australian researcher Julie Fitness: Middle children are almost never considered the favorite child. For the majority of parents, it’s either the first or the youngest child who earns that title.

Try living with that for the first decade of your life.

Powerful Complications
Now let’s switch to a related, and more relevant, problem: The “Middle Manager Syndrome,” one that affects business operations — especially the more labor-intensive ones that dominate animal agriculture and food processing — and revolves around power, rather than status. As most executives would contend, their line foremen, their shift superintendents, their regional sales managers are critical to the firm’s success.

But an intriguing new article in the Harvard Business Review — always my first read each week — offered an explanation to the dilemma posed in its title: “Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting.”

Authors Eric M. Anicich and Jacob B. Hirsh explained that “Middle managers, a group whose members are defined by their intermediate power levels within an organization … must repeatedly alternate between interacting with higher and lower power colleagues.”

They pointed out that middle managers have “complicated power relationships,” because power is exercised primarily through interpersonal relationships. It’s one thing for a company to issue new rules regarding behavior or performance; quite another when the boss calls you into the corner office for a one-on-one.

Even more telling is Anicich’s and Hirsh’s observation that “when interacting with our superiors, we naturally adopt a more deferential low-power behavioral style. When interacting with subordinates, on the other hand, we adopt a more assertive high-power behavioral style.”

Middle managers, thus, are simultaneously “the victims and the carriers of change,” meaning, they’re expected to play a different game when talking to upper management, versus the style they adopt with the hourly or line employees they’re expected to manage and motivate.

As the authors phrased it (and they’re both probably middle children since they’re so “excellent at eloquently presenting their points”), “It is psychologically challenging to disengage from a task that requires one mindset and engage in another task that requires a very different mindset.”

This vertical code-switching, as it’s called, can cause high levels of stress, with the accompanying impact on everything from heart disease to hot-headedness.

What should organizations and management do to mitigate that syndrome? Here are the author’s recommendations, and they make for sensible business, as well as personnel management, tactics:

·         Simplify the reporting structure.

·         Don’t micromanage middle managers.

·         Cut out unnecessary meetings that force managers to interact across role boundaries.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors urged businesses to help middle managers see their twin roles as integrated, not segmented, by tying their job duties to the organizational mission. The goal, they wrote, is to help middle managers “re-frame their self-identity from sometimes a supervisor and sometimes a subordinate” to simply “a manager who is important to the company.”

They recommended one more point, especially relevant these days as more Millennials rise to middle management positions: Embrace a more egalitarian organizational culture that “effectively reduces the behavioral discrepancies between high- and low-power roles.”

In other words, senior management must at least pretend to believe the traditional slogan, “Our most important resource is our people,” actually has some credibility.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.