10 Reasons Why Managers Have a Tough (and Stressful) Job

By Thomas O. Davenport and Stephen D. Harding

Lion tamer, U.S. president, inner-city high school teacher, air traffic controller. To this list of the most stressful jobs add one more: manager.

The headline on a tech industry blog suggests, “First, Kill All the Managers.” Another blog, entitled “I Don’t Want to Be a Manager,” says, “Middle management has become a euphemism for meddling, ineffectual supervision and frustrating career coma.” It’s surprising that more people don’t hide under their desks when the boss comes around to tell them they’ve been promoted.

In fact, it appears many people do hide when faced with the prospect of a promotion into management. A 2009 study by Randstad, the global temporary staffing company, found that more than half of employees say they don’t want to move into management roles.

A consultant reports that, in one of his client organizations, more than one-third of engineers promoted to management jobs went back to their old roles in less than six months. Why? “Because [software] code does what you tell it to do the first time and you don’t have to ask how the kids are.”

Why are management jobs so unattractive?

What makes being a manager so unattractive? On one level, the answer is obvious — just look around today’s workplace. As downsizing lengthens everyone’s to-do list, expanding workloads add new burdens to the manager’s job. With many organizations expecting managers to act as player-coaches, both performing and overseeing work, their roles often become complex and unwieldy. Organizational flattening and widening of managers’ spans of control stretch their ability to spend time coaching, or even to become acquainted with, any individual employee.

It’s hardly surprising that respondents to the Randstad study cited increased stress as the number-one reason for avoiding management responsibility. They also said they hated the idea of handling disgruntled employees (like themselves, perhaps), dealing with loads of administrative paperwork and having to terminate people, many of whom were peers not long before. Given the disinclination of people to take on manager jobs, Randstad predicts what it calls a “looming manager shortage.”

They recommend that, to deal with the shortfall of managers, organizations need to reconsider how they define managerial roles. We would agree — and we have tried to do so in chapters Five through Nine.

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When you consider the full array of leadership and management responsibilities that fall to people with supervisor and manager titles, one thing becomes clear — managers have difficult jobs. Workload pressure from downsizing, unworkable ranges of responsibility, and wide spans of control all burden managers’ jobs, increase their stress levels and reduce their effectiveness. Little wonder employees are skeptical about the competence of the people to whom they report.

Familiar as these factors are, however, they don’t fully explain why managers so often find their jobs frustrating and unfulfilling. To understand that story, we must look beneath the superficial effects of workday realities. We must go to a deeper stratum of mental and emotional elements that affect how people experience their work and their relationships with peers and managers. Thanks to our psychological infrastructure, we workplace inhabitants have many attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics that can make life miserable for managers.

Employees are smart and demanding

What about the workforce itself — how has it evolved, and what does that evolution mean for the challenges managers face? A few data points describe salient traits of the current workforce:

  • More human capital to invest. About 30 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force now has at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with about one-quarter in 1998. Between 1992 and 2010 employment grew by about 21 percent, while the proportion of participants with degrees grew by 63 percent.
  • Confident in their ability to direct their own work. In Towers Watson’s 2010 global workforce study, 78 percent of the respondents said they feel comfortable managing their work on their own, with little direct oversight from managers.
  • Willing to stay put, if it pays off. Average tenure with their current employers stayed relatively stable from 1996 (at 5.0 years) to 2008 (5.1 years) for all workers 25 years and older. That stability stretches back to 1983, when the average tenure for this worker group was also 5.0 years. More than 80 percent of respondents to our 2010 global workforce study said they either had no plans to leave their current employers or were not actively looking to move but would consider another offer if presented. About two-thirds defined their preferred career model as working for no more than three organizations over the course of their professional lives.
  • Willing to move if staying put doesn’t pay off. Average tenure for workers in the prime earning ages of 45 to 54 dropped from 8.3 years to 7.6 years between 1996 and 2008. For workers in the 55–64 age group, average tenure fell from 10.2 years to 9.9 years. Social strictures against changing jobs have decreased for all age groups. Seasoned workers with plenty of knowledge and experience (that’s right, human capital) are ready to change companies if they think it will pay off, in financial and other ways. This behavior seems particularly characteristic of the male working population. Average tenure for men in the 45–54 age group fell from 10.1 years in 1996 to 8.2 in 2008.
  • Highly connected to information sources. Some 63 percent of adult Americans now have broadband Internet connections at home, compared with about 42 percent in 2006. More than 80 percent of homes with educational attainment at the college level have home broadband.
  • Highly connected to each other. The average corporate user of e-mail can expect to send and receive more than 150 messages per day. That number is projected to grow to more than 230 by 2012. Business users report that they currently spend about one-fifth of the workday on e-mail.
  • Connected in evolving new ways. Social media play a growing, though still modest, role in the workplace. On the one hand, more than half of office workers with Web access have at least one social networking account (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and the like). The social networking site Facebook claims to have more than 400 million active users. And it’s not just teenagers who are friending each other; the fastest-growing Facebook demographic group is women above the age of 55. Almost half of Facebook’s U.S. audience is now 26 years of age or older. Meanwhile, Twitter has put together a community of millions of users in little more time than it takes to tweet your BFF. By one report, total tweet volume exceeded 1 billion messages a month as of the beginning of 2010, more than double the volume four months earlier. On the other hand, only about a one-fifth of computer enabled workers say they access their social media sites during work hours. In-person contact remains the number one channel of conversation about work-related news and events (49 percent of global workforce study respondents choosing it most often) compared with various forms of online connection (37 percent selecting these as most frequent).
  • Well-informed about employers. Google lists hundreds of job search Web sites. These include megasites like Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com that offer about a million current job listings. Web sites like Salary.com and Vault.com provide detailed reward and culture information on almost any large company.
  • Hardened by ups and downs in the labor market. People who have been in the labor force since 1992 have witnessed cycles of unemployment that graph like an Alpine postcard. Unemployment went from 7.8 percent in June of that year down to 3.8 percent in April of 2000, back up to 6.3 percent in the middle of 2003, down to 4.4 percent in March of 2007 and up again to 10 percent in December of 2009. Periodic mass layoffs have weakened the bonds between individual and organization. From 1998 through 2010, annual mass layoffs (defined as single-establishment separations that lead to 50 or more individual filings for unemployment insurance) ranged from a low of about 900,000 in 1999 to highs of more than 1.5 million in 2001 and 2.1 million in 2010.
  • Ready to look out for themselves. About three-quarters of the participants in our 2010 worldwide survey said they carry the primary responsibility for managing their careers, ensuring their financial futures, and seeing to their personal health and well-being. Far lower percentages said they felt confident in their ability to execute these responsibilities.

These trends have produced a smart, savvy, self-sufficient, and wary workforce. In the words of one observer, “Today’s workplace requires an enlightened, demanding, and independent workforce that has no problem voting with its feet when unhappy.” These workers want a manager who recognizes their abilities, meets their need for information, tells them the truth, respects their freedom, and rewards their success.

The manager who fails finds himself with an investor who withholds his human capital, or who takes his investable portfolio to a job that offers a higher return.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization, by Thomas Davenport and Stephen Harding Copyright (c)  2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thomas O. Davenport is a senior practitioner in the San Francisco office of Towers Watson. He provides advice on human capital strategy, employee and organization research, and leadership development. Contact him at tom.davenport@towerswatson.com. Stephen D. Harding is a senior practitioner in the London office of Towers Watson. He has consulted in employee research and organizational behavior for 20 years, managing employee research projects throughout Europe.


1 Comment on “10 Reasons Why Managers Have a Tough (and Stressful) Job

  1. …certainly wish I had not agreed to become a manager. I make about 10% more and have 100% more stress. Also feel my job basically has no purpose, as even though I am middle management, I don’t think middle management really adds any value.

    There is a serious point of diminishing returns in IT. You can get to a point where you are making 6 figures and kind of just plug into your computer, stick your headphones on, code, and go home at the end of the day. Then you become a manager and its all politics and bull sh*t. How much more money do you really need?

    There’s no going back! Beware the promotion!

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