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The 'miserable middle' was coined by Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter in a 2009 blog post, as she described how 'everything looks like a failure in the middle.'

C.Y.Ronnie.W/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Lee Child begins his thrillers with little more than an idea for an opening scene and the intention of joining his readers in following his wandering hero Jack Reacher through the complications that will arise. He loves writing the beginning and finding the conclusion, but the middle, which can come as early as Page 2, is a struggle, he confided to literary scholar Andy Martin, who shadowed him during the writing of Mr. Lee’s Make Me.

Middles are notoriously tough. These days, we’re collectively stuck in what health-psychology professor Elke Van Hoof calls the largest psychological experiment ever conducted.

Harvard University professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter gave this situation a name – the miserable middle of change – in a famed 2009 blog post for Harvard Business Review: “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.” She saw it repeatedly in institutional-change efforts, when even true believers hit doubts, and in the global economic crisis of that era.

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In her recent book Think Outside the Building, she looks at a solar-cell project in Africa, which had to get through an Ebola crisis, and offers the helpful metaphor of a desert and oasis. “This morass is still just a middle, a desert with a very tough dry spell, but with hopes for an oasis ahead,” she noted in an e-mail interview. “Sadly and tragically, it’s an unhappy ending for some people, but for most, it’s a choice point. Do you give in and give up – which makes it a failure by definition? Or do you find ways to get through the crisis in a positive way, making needed adjustments, helping those who need help, but keeping your longer-term purpose in mind?”

She says mastering the miserable middle requires flexibility – rigid people won’t succeed – and turning to partners for support. It also requires a strong sense of purpose. Why did you get into this work in the first place? Is it worth continuing? And don’t get stuck in silos, where you think only of protecting your own work. Instead, increase your communication and ask others for ideas.

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her husband, developmental psychologist Steven Kramer, identified the importance in daily work of feeling you are making progress for their book The Progress Principle. That would seem to apply even more when stuck in today’s quagmire of uncertainty.

By studying diary entries written every day by 238 people in 26 project teams in seven companies, they found making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term progress. We need a sense that we are accomplishing something meaningful day-by-day. That means finding it for ourselves but also helping those we lead to note their own progress.

In an interview, Prof. Amabile said at this time it’s vital your subordinates have clear goals and a sense that the work they are doing is meaningful – they make a difference. They also need to feel supported by the organization. Showing appreciation every day helps to clarify that support and the progress they’ve made.

Her sister, an occupational-health nurse with a utility company that covers the northeastern United States, knows she is helping the workers who keep energy flowing. The sister has also been seeing hopeful progress as patients she dealt with come out of quarantine.

Even if your business is in suspension, perhaps you can eke out some progress toward what comes next. Get in touch with people on furlough, help them access community support and tell them their job will come back. When somebody working remotely achieves success, don’t leave him or her to celebrate alone. “Celebrate the small wins every day,” she says.

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In the book, they recommended writing daily diaries, answering questions like: What progress did I make today, and how did it affect my inner work life? What nourishers and catalysts supported me and my work today (and how can I sustain them tomorrow)? What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow?

Another perspective comes from Robert J. Thomas of the Accenture Institute for High Performance, who in Crucibles of Leadership highlighted transformative moments in our careers that shape us, like the vessels in which alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold.

The experiences can be painful, but we emerge stronger. So instead of thinking of this as a morass, miserable middle or even a desert in which you are seeking an oasis, consider the possibility it’s a once-in-a-career crucible shaping you for the better. Look for the learning possibilities. Find what my friend Ken Rose – his brother Joel Rose happens to be a pal of Lee Child – calls your “inner Reacher” and steadily push forward.


  • If “how’s it going?” doesn’t lead to much sharing when you begin remote meetings, try consultant Joe McCormack’s technique of asking “what was your high point and low point” of recent days?
  • Also dig deeper on your team’s remote-work environment. Executive recruiter Jeff Hyman recommends having each team member send a photo of their workspace. Then advise those who need a better situation to order a cheap desk or a comfortable chair from IKEA or Amazon.
  • Everybody’s talking about Zoom, but if you’re one of the small number of organizations hiring at this point, Fast Company contributor Lea Goldman urges you to opt for a phone interview of the candidate instead, so you aren’t biased by factors like less-than-perfect grooming in the pandemic.

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