By Lindsey Galloway
While it’s never been easy to be a middle manager — navigating both the needs of the C-Suite and junior employees — the past few years have created new pressures. From managing hybrid work, to staff shortages, to supply chain issues, mid-management often had to go above and beyond without necessarily getting the support they’ve needed themselves.
“During the pandemic, middle managers had to learn to lead and communicate virtually. They had to motivate candidates to come into the office (even if getting paid more at home) and current employees to stay (even if new hires are making more than those with experience). And they had to manage both customers experiencing adverse effects and leaders expecting results,” says Chief Member Erika Duncan, Co-Founder and human capital advisor for People on Point.
If not addressed, this unrelenting pressure could lead to adverse effects throughout the workplace for years to come. A recent study by MetLife found that 42% of Millennial managers, those ages 26-40, say they are burned out, compared to 34% of Gen Z managers and 27% of Gen X managers.
This stress is already showing up in employee satisfaction numbers. In their annual employee experience survey, Qualtrics found that 5% fewer workers were planning on staying in their current job in 2022 compared to 2021, but women middle managers in particular reported a drop of nearly 21% in their intent to stay — meaning they are three times more likely to resign or find a new job this year.
But the Great Middle Manager Migration doesn’t have to be inevitable. Executives can do foundational work now to better train, support, and empower this vital management layer of their organizations.
Training for Talent Management
Many managers are promoted internally because they are high performing individual contributors, but those skills that got them promoted aren’t necessarily the same ones that are needed to effectively manage people. Too often, companies ignore the training and preparation necessary to coach these rising stars into effective managers — leaving both them and their teams frustrated.
“If managers are forced to lead others but lack the proper training to do so effectively, it will lead to more conflict, excessive miscommunication, and a culture with a widening divide between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Cara Silletto, President and Chief Retention Officer at Magnet Culture. Organizations instead need to focus on improving manager effectiveness by investing in training, particularly in situations where employees may be managing in a remote or hybrid environment, which requires even more specialized skills and the tools to match.
Leaders also need to make a decision on what the primary role of this middle manager is — whether it’s to lead people or execute more tasks as an IC. “When it comes to managers’ attention, the demand for time is high and the supply is low,” says Silletto. “In most cases, we have maxed out managers’ plates to the point where many are working with staff instead of managing staff. When this occurs, managers aren’t able to be managers.”
Danielle Boris, CEO at employee development platform Sandbox agrees, adding that this career step is where managers should start focusing more deeply on developing their people skills, and senior leaders should shift their expectations. “At this layer of management, leaders need to move away from handing down projects and towards empowering and developing talent,” she says. “Without shifting middle management from doers to coaches, the rising generation of talent working for them will leave the organization."
Removing Red Tape
A big part of enabling managers to effectively guide their teams is to give them the ability to be as autonomous as possible, trusting them with big decisions, even when those choices may not always be perfect. If a manager can competently make a decision, but has to seek permission to actually enact it, consider allowing them to make those choices without the red tape. This not only gives these leaders a sense of ownership over their own team’s responsibilities, but also cultivates long-term leadership skills that can help them climb the corporate ladder.
Calling attention to great decisions and strong work also goes a long way toward laying the foundation for a middle manager’s career path. “Never underestimate the power of visibility,” says Duncan. “That means taking public opportunities to praise and encourage, and minimizing scruitity, which increases trust when things don't go 100% perfectly.” Autonomy can also mean that managers have the opportunity to anticipate staffing needs and have the freedom to hire for what’s coming, and not just for the current moment.
Clearing the Communication Channels
Of course, communication is vital in any position, but middle managers often have their ear to the ground on what’s happening in the wider organization. Leaders can learn a lot about attitudes by holding regular meetings with their reports, and being willing to listen to open and honest feedback.
“On every call, I ask my team ‘what do you need from me or from anyone else in this room?’” says Boris. “They know that they can come to me to succeed and lean on me for support. It’s not me versus them. We all win and lose together.”
Executives who cultivate the talents of today’s middle managers not only create companies with greater employee retention, but also carve the way for these leaders to stay in the C-Suite pipeline, ensuring strong leadership now and for the future.
Have you listened to the Chief podcast? Tune into "The New Rules of Business" as Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan unpack today's most challenging leadership questions. Be sure to leave a review and follow wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes drop every Tuesday.