Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

The great Aristotle wrote more than two millennia ago that man and women are social animals. More recently, Charles Darwin made us realise that we have more in common with monkeys than we wish to admit.

Recent research has strengthened this idea by showing that middle management stress is a natural occurrence as it also occurs among Barbary macaques.[note]Edwards, K. L., Walker, S. L., Bodenham, R. F., Ritchie, H., & Shultz, S. (2013). Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study design. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 186(1), 72–79. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.02.023.[/note]

Although there are many advantages to working in organisations, social conflict is often a source of stress. Subordinate members of the team receive more aggression from higher ranked individuals and experience higher stress levels as a consequence. Katie Edwards showed that monkeys at the Trentham Monkey Forest in the middle of the hierarchy were involved with conflict from both individuals below them as well as above them, whereas those in the bottom of the hierarchy distance themselves from conflict. The middle ranking macaques were more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher on the social ladder, causing them stress in the process.

Avoid middle management stress

Knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomenon and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should only accept it as a fact of life. The paper also describes how different animal species developed coping mechanisms to deal with their stressful lives. In olive baboons, subordinate males that redirect aggression towards another baboon following a conflict had lower stress levels compared to those that did not do so. Another coping mechanism is social buffering; the social support from other members of the group, which has been demonstrated in greylag geese.

Direct support reduces the impact of stress, including close grooming relationships during times of social instability, and post-conflict consolation. Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, you should ensure that you look after middle management in your organisation and avoid high levels of stress.

Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, a Lucid Manager looks after middle management and avoids unhealthy levels of stress.

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