How To Help Middle Managers Thrive in the Workplace

How To Help Middle Managers Thrive in the Workplace

Several years back I wrote a blog that asked if the middle manager role was the most difficult job in the world. I argued, particularly for those working in operations, that the demands placed on middle managers were unsustainable. My contention then was that unless we address this problem we are in danger of increased attrition and burnout amongst this cohort.

Since then, the pressures on middle managers have increased significantly. We now expect them to deliver functional KPIs in flatter, faster, and leaner organisational structures, often in a hybrid or a matrix environment. On top of that, they must contend with people and skills shortages, very often operating with open positions in their teams.

Attrition rates have risen sharply and, according to a recent KPMG survey, 60% of organisations are struggling to recruit suitable talent because of ‘full employment’. Our clients tell us that it can take 6 months or longer to fill open positions. As a result, we are asking middle managers to focus on retention, to cultivate a supportive environment within their teams where all employees feel engaged and satisfied. We want them to get the balance right between being a ‘performance driver’ and a ‘team protector’ with less resources.

Is it any wonder that middle managers tell us they are tired and are considering their options, especially when other opportunities are widely available elsewhere? The evidence backs this up. According to the Predictive Index, 70% of middle managers would love to return to being independent contributors, 79% say they are at risk of burnout and 58% claim they are not very confident their concerns are heard.

So, what can we do to help our middle managers thrive?

  1. Hear them

The most important thing we can do is to check in with our middle managers, regularly. A colleague of mine made the distinction between checking in and checking up. Checking up is focused on performance. Checking in is focused on the human being. This can’t just be a cursory conversation. We need to really listen – I call this contextual listening. There may be some venting but try to distinguish between those who like talking about how busy they are versus those who are really in trouble, those that are a flight risk and do something about it.

  1. Help them get to the other side of the swamp

When Middle Managers are fighting crocodiles in the swamp, they find it difficult to see and get to the other side of the swamp. Get rid of organizational hurdles. According to McKinsey, nearly half of Middle Managers’ time is spent on bureaucratic and administrative work. Leaders need to be crystal clear on what middle managers need to be doing with their time. Minimize excessive meetings and emails, and streamline approval processes. Help middle managers to minimize administrative work and to prioritize what will contribute most to the strategic agenda, especially talent management through coaching and development

  1. Coach the right Skills and Behaviors

Put simply, high performance demands an equal focus on results and behaviors. It’s not just what we do but how we do it. Recognize the signals that your middle managers are leaning towards results over behaviors – emails become terse and demanding, they give less thanks for a job well done and they spend a lot more time doing rather than thinking. The best senior managers help middle managers to get the proper balance and spend time coaching middle managers on the right skills and behaviors

  1. Address resource shortages through coaching

There is no simple answer or quick fix to the skills resource issue. I’m no Talent Acquisition expert but what we do know is that it’s much better from a cost, effort, and muscle memory point of view to hold on to people rather than recruiting new talent. We also know that a sense of purpose and engagement leads to higher retention. It’s reckoned by Clifton and Harte in their book It’s the Manager, that 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager. They go on to say that managers must move from boss to coach, value their people as individuals and as employees, and help them understand and leverage their strengths. Senior leaders need to coach their middle managers and in turn middle managers need to coach their direct reports to enhance engagement and retention.

  1. A sense of purpose with progression

All senior leaders were middle managers at some stage in their careers. While the landscape, circumstances and expectations may have changed, there are some things that never change. Middle managers favour interesting work with a meaningful purpose, opportunities for development, and career progression over financial reward. Figure out what you can do to position your middle managers to take advantage of career progression opportunities.

  1. Development, not Training

Sending middle managers on one off skills training programmes doesn’t work. Getting a glimpse of how things should work can lead to more frustration when they return to the workplace. Instead focus on development with a blended approach over time. The most effective middle manager development programmes are those where senior leaders are engaged from the start in setting out the why and being clear on measurable learning outcomes. The development journey, usually of 6 to 9 months duration does include targeted formal workshop learning with meaningful pre and post work application, but it must also include 1:1 or group coaching, experiential learning through sponsored group project work as well as regular manager 1:1 check ins and exposure to senior leaders. Senior leaders must also measure the outcomes and put processes in place to continue the development journey.

Even if you do all of the above, the middle manager role will still be difficult but it should lead to a more engaged and focused middle manager cohort.

Ready to elevate your leadership potential? Contact us today to discover how our expert guidance can empower your organisation. With our Elevate Programme, specifically designed for middle managers, unlock the full potential of your team and lead with confidence and innovation.

Richard McCarthy

Richard joined OMT in 1998 and is head of Consultancy Services following a 14 year international career in project management, financial control and various management development roles. Richard specialises in working with Senior and Middle Management, focusing on critical Organisational Development Initiatives such as Strategy Development & Implementation, Change Management, and the roll-out of extensive Management & Leadership Development Programmes and One to One Executive Coaching. His previous work across Europe and Africa has helped him understand the impact of organisational culture, and change on managers’ ability to deliver successful results. Richard enjoys the challenge he gets from his work, especially working with clients who face difficult strategic choices or need to develop new skills & behaviours. Richard believes the rewards are satisfying when you know you have made a meaningful contribution.

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