Welcome to our blog series on middle managers. Over the next two months, we will focus on the millions who comprise this heroic group. We’ll start with an overview of modern middle manager challenges and follow with some individual perspectives from middle managers. Our final two posts will cover general solutions and technology-specific solutions for supporting the middle managers in our organizations.
When I was 24 years old and working in a junior-level PR job in New York City, I decided to write a book about everything work-related I hadn’t been taught in college. Burnout was top of mind.
As it turns out, I had no idea.
Fast forward 20 years, and many of my generational compatriots are middle managers. They took these roles at a time when burnout had increased so much that the World Health Organization had labeled it an “occupational phenomenon.” And, in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, late 2021 survey data from Gallup found that manager and middle manager burnout is only getting worse and is precipitously higher than individual contributor burnout.
It’s easy to attribute burnout to working two years in a pandemic, but the issue is more nuanced and multifactorial. First, let’s consider the role within the organization. A manager in the middle of several layers of hierarchy must maintain relationships with those below them and those above them. “It requires being both a proactive leader to direct reports and an engaged follower to the top management – all at the same time,” wrote Zahira Jaser last year in Harvard Business Review.
Jaser explored other challenges facing middle managers, including the need to create a dialogue with and appease people with conflicting agendas, to amplify the voices of direct reports upwards, and to critically appraise and balance dilemmas.
Do middle managers receive proper training for this complex dance? It depends, but the answer is often no. Ceridian’s 2022 Executive Survey found that while leaders recognize the value of middle managers, they aren’t always great at supporting them.
When Executive Survey respondents were asked how their organizations support middle managers, only half (51%) said their organizations offer management training programs.
A lack of comprehensive leadership development guidance and mentoring often leaves middle managers feeling less secure. Millennial managers are especially vulnerable to getting in over their heads, as they were promoted into supervisory positions much earlier than prior generations. All these factors lead to a profound experience of middle manager burnout.
If it was hard to be a middle manager in a traditional work environment where you could keep your eyes on your employees, it’s harder in a hybrid or remote one. It’s also more difficult to infuse the culture with a sense of belonging and to support your people so you don’t have to replace them.
A 2021 Gartner study found that although nearly 70% of HR leaders agreed that hybrid work responsibilities are overwhelming for managers, only 14% were taking action to remedy this.
Many middle managers are also up against the trend of organizations desiring to become flatter and leaner in the post-pandemic era, a development that may put their jobs at risk.
On the McKinsey Talks Talent podcast, Brian Hancock shared that during the early days of COVID-19, leaders made decisions quickly and with a small number of people. “Senior leaders began to say, ‘Hey, we just made decisions in two weeks that used to take two years...’ and then they shifted to, ‘A lot of folks weren’t in that meeting. Maybe we don’t need them.’”
The rise of machine learning and automated workforce partners has further blurred the true value of middle managers, and, across industries, many are understandably scared.
Stay tuned for the next post, in which we’ll hear about these stressors from their side.
Alexandra Levit is an author, consultant, speaker, and workplace expert. She has written several career advice books, and was formerly a nationally syndicated career columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Alexandra is currently a partner at organizational development firm PeopleResults.View Collection