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The Secret Suffering of the Middle Manager

When researchers try to determine the types of workers who are most prone to depression, the focus is usually on the misery of those at the bottom of a company’s hierarchy—the presumed stressors being the menial duties they're tasked with and their lack of say in defining the scope of their jobs.

But it turns out that middle managers have it worse. In a new study from researchers at Columbia University, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers (from a dataset from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions), they saw that 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. For blue-collar workers, that figure was 12 percent, and for owners and executives, it was only 11 percent.

The researchers had a hunch about the woes of middle management because it occupies what they call a “contradictory-class location”: Middle managers have higher wages and more autonomy than the workers they manage, but they earn less than their superiors and don’t get to make big decisions. Middle managers often have to enforce strategic policies from the top—ones they didn’t develop—on subordinates who might object to those new policies. Basically, middle managers...

NASA’s 20-Year-Old Astronaut Hiring Procedures Still Work Today

In 1978, NASA was just beginning its space shuttle program and Dr. Terry McGuire was responsible for assessing the psychological fitness of astronauts in preparation for NASA missions. It was a daunting task. Putting several extremely talented, smart and confident people into space together requires the ultimate in teamwork, physical and mental toughness, and psychological agility. McGuire’s key concern was an astronaut’s ability to manage his emotions, communicate effectively with others and handle stress.

It was during this time that McGuire was introduced to Dr. Taibi Kahler, a psychologist from Hot Springs, Arkansas who had discovered a process to assess human interactions second by second and determine the productivity of the communication.

Kahler sat in on several neuropsychological assessment interviews as part of the astronaut selection cycle. About 10 minutes into each one, he would make some notes on a piece of paper and place it on the floor. Several hours later, when McGuire had concluded his testing and interview, he and Kahler would compare notes. Kahler’s assessments after just 10 minutes of observation aligned with McGuire’s with astounding consistency and predicted how the rest of the interview would play out with eerie accuracy.

McGuire and...

The High Professional Cost of Your Inability to Trust

“Trust involves the juxtaposition of people’s loftiest hopes and aspirations with their deepest worries and fears.” –Jeffrey A. Simpson

Trust is one of those terms that is casually tossed around in business conversations and management literature, yet for each and every one of us, the decision to trust someone is a deep and difficult personal decision. It grows even more complicated when we are challenged to operate as a team or develop a team.

I remember resenting an accusation leveled by our chairman when he suggested the reason we weren’t executing our strategy effectively was because the senior management team members didn’t trust each other. He was right.

There are two possible outcomes when we choose to trust someone. We’ll either find our trust vindicated by the actions of the other party, or we’ll be disappointed and hurt when our trust is abused. The fear of the latter for many of us overwhelms the potential for reward from the former. Roughly said, the cost of having our trust abused exceeds the potential gain from it being treated with care and respect.

While the root causes of our propensity to trust or distrust may be found...

Modafinil Really Is a 'Smart Drug,' But Is It Workplace Doping?

If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?

In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.

Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.

“What emerged was that the longer and the more complex the task, ... the more consistently modafinil showed cognitive benefits,” said Anna-Katharine Brem, a neuropsychologist at Oxford and one of the paper’s authors, in an email.

Surprisingly, the authors found no safety concerns in the data, though they caution that most of the studies were done in controlled environments and only looked at the effects of a single dose.

Modafinil is one of an arsenal of drugs, which includes Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta, that...

Budgeteers Join Forces Online to Get More Bang for the Buck

Budgeting is often viewed as an arcane profession that projects an image within the federal government not unlike that of IRS auditors in the private sector. Everyone knows the job is important, few want to be one, and no one wants to sit next to them in the lunch room. Yet, they work hard and want to get things right.

Former federal budget officer Doug Criscitello participated in a panel on budget reform recently, in a room packed with concerned finance professionals. He noted: “It is clear the key practitioners in the field are desperate for improvements in a process that has not only failed taxpayers in recent years but has also hindered the ability of government finance professionals to plan and execute the financial management programs of their agencies in a responsible way.”

It may take years before such reforms are possible, but what happens in the meanwhile? Budgeteers live in a pressure-cooker environment: splitting their time between responding to — or generating — data calls, conducting “what if” analyses, and engaging in seemingly endless negotiations. While they would like to see broader reforms, they still have their day-to-day job of ensuring their agency budgets are formulated and executed.

Traditionally the...