Written by Ross Thornley, CEO of AQai

Imagine being a tightrope walker, balancing precariously between the towering expectations of senior management and the grounded realities of frontline teams. Welcome to the world of middle management – a realm where the weight of organisational goals meets the resistance of operational hurdles. Our data research unveils a startling truth: those entrenched in their careers for 10-15 years, the core of middle management, are not just carrying this weight; they are buckling under it. This revelation begs the questions: What’s driving this surge in stress? And how can we, as HR leaders and organisations, extend a lifeline to these pivotal players in our corporate tapestry?

The Middle Management Stress Phenomenon 

Our October 2023 study involving over 7000 professionals, echoing the sentiments of many in the corridors of middle management, has shed light on a startling trend. Data reveals that those in the midst of their careers, particularly between the 10-15 year marks, experience heightened stress levels. It’s a period marked not just by increased responsibilities but also by a growing expectation to be both strategic visionaries and operational executors.

Insights From the Data

  1. Peak Stress at 10-14 Years: The research reveals that middle managers, particularly those 10-14 years into their careers, exhibit the highest levels of work stress. This period often coincides with a critical phase in their professional journey, where the pressure to perform and evolve is at its zenith.
  2. Role Complexity and Stress Correlation: The data indicates a strong correlation between the complexity of a middle manager’s role and their stress levels. Managers who juggle many tasks, from strategic planning to team management, report higher stress.
  3. Impact of Organisational Support: Another significant finding is the impact of organisational support on stress mitigation. Managers who feel adequately supported by their organisations, whether through resources, training or emotional support, tend to report lower stress levels.
  4. Adaptability and Stress Management: A notable aspect of the research is the emphasis on adaptability. Managers with higher Adaptability Quotient (AQ) scores, as measured by the AQme assessment, generally cope better with stress. This underscores the importance of adaptability in not just managing but thriving under pressure.

Decoding the Stressors 

But why this peak in stress? The data hints at a multifaceted answer. Middle managers are often caught in the crossfire of executing strategic initiatives while simultaneously managing day-to-day operational challenges. Their role, pivotal as a communication bridge, also subjects them to the stress of conflict resolution, performance management and, often, the emotional labour of their teams. It’s a juggling act with task overwhelm that requires not just skill and experience but a high degree of ‘adaptability intelligence.’

The Power of Adaptability Quotient (AQ)

In navigating these challenges, adaptability emerges as a beacon. Drawing from the principles outlined in my book “Decoding AQ: Your Greatest Superpower,” enhancing our Adaptability Quotient (AQ) can be a game-changer. It’s not just about managing change and coping with uncertainty; it’s about thriving in it. Enhancing AQ among middle managers could be the key to flourishing in these stress-laden roles.

Actionable Strategies

So, what can HR leaders and organisations do? It’s a blend of acknowledgement, support and strategic intervention.

  1. Assessing Adaptability with AQme: The cornerstone of any intervention is understanding the current baseline and this is where the AQme assessment tool comes into play. By evaluating the Adaptability Quotient (AQ) of middle managers, organisations can gain valuable insights into their adaptability skills, characteristics and environmental factors. This data-driven approach allows for targeted strategies to enhance their adaptability skills, ultimately reducing stress and increasing resilience.
  2. Open Communication: Encourage middle managers to proactively communicate their workload and stress levels with their superiors and teams. This open dialogue can lead to a reassessment of expectations and responsibilities, ensuring they align with the manager’s capacity and the team’s objectives.
  3. Task Prioritisation and Breakdown: Equip middle managers with tools and training to prioritise tasks effectively. Encourage them to break down large projects into smaller, manageable steps. This approach can significantly reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and promote a sense of achievement as each step is completed.
  4. Delegation and Collaboration: Foster a culture where delegation is not seen as abdicating responsibility but as an effective management strategy. Encourage middle managers to delegate appropriately and collaborate with colleagues, thus distributing the workload more evenly and fostering team cohesion.
  5. Professional Development in Stress Management: Offer opportunities for middle managers to receive coaching or counselling focused on developing stress management skills and coping strategies. This could include workshops on adaptability training and sessions with certified AQ coaches to develop personalised strategies.


The path of a middle manager, often riddled with hidden stressors, need not be a journey of struggle. By recognising these challenges, understanding the underlying causes, and implementing strategies centred around adaptability and support, organisations can transform these roles into opportunities for growth and innovation. As we navigate the future of work, let’s remember that our most significant assets are not just our strategies or technologies but the human spirit that drives them.