July 14, 2022

How to support your middle managers

The employee-manager relationship is vital to long-term retention. Here’s how to support your middle managers through assimilation and psychological safety.

Want to know what struck me the most in our middle manager panel blog post? I was impressed by how proactive they were. In many circumstances, they knew what to do and were able to execute on behalf of their organisation and for their own well-being.

I realise this is not always the case, especially for new managers or managers who are new to working in a distributed work environment.

It’s up to an organisation’s leaders to provide middle managers with the support and guidance to be productive, engaged, and healthy on the job. Let’s divide our support strategies into two categories: assimilation and safety.

Assimilation

Assimilation doesn’t just apply to middle managers who are new to the role or new to an organisation. Even experienced managers can feel confused or stressed about how to succeed in this transformed workforce that presents new management challenges.

Leaders need to start conversations on how to manage bi-directionally within the organisation’s current culture, how job expectations and success metrics have evolved, and how to handle employee issues that didn’t exist two years ago – like how to proceed if a worker refuses to come to the office.

More than ever, middle managers need leaders to facilitate mentorship, sponsorship, and peer-leader relationships that can grow and deepen in person as well as online.

In Ceridian’s 2022 Executive Survey, 94% of respondents said that the employee-manager relationship was very or extremely important for employee retention. Despite that, many people in supervisory positions don’t feel comfortable communicating with their direct reports.

In a private leadership session, I recently asked 10 executives how they felt about having substantive conversations with their employees. More than half said “awkward.” Regardless of the cause of the communication difficulties (lack of in-person rapport, etc.), this is an issue that should be nipped in the bud.

Both new and experienced middle managers should receive training in areas such as demonstrating empathy, building trust, delegating, providing constructive performance feedback, and persuading and motivating teams. This may be easier said than done, though, because as the Executive Survey indicated, only about half of organisations have management training programs at all.

The bottom line? Today’s middle managers don’t have the bandwidth or wherewithal to “figure it out.” If leaders want them working in harmony with the rest of the organisation, they need to expend the time and resources to educate them and empower them to overcome management challenges.

Safety

For much of the pandemic, employee safety initiatives focused on how we could keep people from contracting and spreading COVID-19. But over the course of two trauma-filled years, employees and especially managers began feeling a different lack of safety.

In fact, the emotion that has most permeated the ranks of middle management is fear. Many are facing significant personal and professional challenges but are afraid to speak up lest they experience negative consequences.

Some organisations have done an excellent job of supporting managers’ psychological needs during the pandemic, including organising events to target burnout, providing confidential resources like crisis hotlines and behavioural health sessions, and actively reducing the stigma of talking about mental health issues. And in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, organisations are offering career mobility and flex work options to an unprecedented degree.

The key here is to sustain the momentum. Already, I’m seeing some companies revert to their basic EAPs (employee assistance programs) when it comes time to decide on benefits for the upcoming year.

Unfortunately, I’m also witnessing certain organisations doubling down on in-person office time or subtly punishing managers who leave work to pick up a child or go to a doctor’s appointment.

If managers don’t feel safe, no one else will either. Caring for middle managers through assimilation and safety isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart business decision in a tight labor market where competent and loyal talent is hard to find.

Alexandra Levit

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 organisational development firm PeopleResults.

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