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5 Important Steps to Improve the Wellbeing of Middle Managers

The pandemic has upended how we work and inspired us to reconsider our lives, as well as our workplace practices and norms. 

In the process of redefining when and where we work, the traditional manager role has been challenged, as managers have been expected to take on more responsibilities and demonstrate new skills.

Not only have middle managers had to adapt to leading teams through a pandemic, but also deal with an unusual combination of factors such as supply chain issues, inflation, cost of living pressures, mental health issues, labour shortages and return-to-work mandates.

It's little wonder that Ceridian’s recent Pulse of Talent global report found that 89% of middle managers experienced burnout in 2022, with more than a third (34%) admitting that they don’t feel fulfilled in their current role and three-quarters (74%) actively looking for a new job.

As you would expect, this has produced a discernible impact on the employees they manage.  According to a recent Gartner survey, the top reasons for employees leaving in the fourth quarter of 2022 were manager quality, respect, and people management.
While the pandemic has been difficult for everyone, middle managers have been more directly impacted. Not only do they have to balance the demands of their superiors, but also interact with high numbers of employees on a daily basis. 
As Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School said "In the early stages of the pandemic, companies focused - properly and understandably - on the well-being and productivity of individual employees. But since then it has become clear that focusing on individuals is not enough. Leaders must also consider the well-being and productivity of their teams and their managers, because it's there, in the relationships among people, where many connections fray under the novel strains of hybrid work."
What's become increasingly clear is managers can't lead their teams on their own. They need support.
Leadership teams together with the HR Director need to improve their focus on better supporting their managers across the organisation -  removing policies and procedures that overburden them, investing in developing managers’ skills and unlocking their mindsets to manage in new ways.
So let's go through five steps that organisations can do to improve the wellbeing of their middle managers.

1. Improve Clarity around Business Context

Middle managers are the organisational linchpins that bring people together in an organisation from the top to bottom. Unfortunately, their success is often at the whim of senior leaders who often don't provide enough detail of the the company vision nor access to the reasoning behind strategic decision making. 

Essentially, middle managers have all the responsibilities without enough context.

This often means that they err on the side of caution. In my work with organisations, I often find that managers are hesitant to make decisions because they don't receive enough information. This is compounded in cultures were they are heavily scrutinised. In these circumstances, managers second guess themselves and fail to make timely decisions for their teams.

A lack of context reduces psychological safety which contributes to managers feeling anxious - leading to burnout.

Senior leaders must regularly ensure they communicate the vision clearly, explain what high performance looks like and what managers need to do to deliver towards expectations.

2. Reduce Overwork

For many humans being busy is a badge of honour. It makes us feel important.

Yet, the impact of busyness has done untold damage to our health and personal fulfilment.

To help avoid a company culture of overwork, it is important senior leaders set clear boundaries and expectations to reduce overwork - not just with middle managers, but their direct reports as well. This includes policies that limit out of hours messages, reducing unnecessary meeting attendance, modelling taking time off and prioritising mental health.

3. Leadership training for managers

Research from 15Five uncovered that a small 37% of employees are impressed by their manager’s leadership abilities and 32% believe their managers need additional training. Yet, training middle managers requires a different focus from the past.
Today, it has become clear that it is now no longer as important to see what employees are doing, but instead understand how they feel.
Workplace culture has transitioned from being created from physical proximity ("being seen" - interactions between employees in a physical office) to emotional proximity (“feeling seen” — where employees feel valued and understand how their contribution impacts the team).

Successful leadership in this new environment requires that managers must lead with empathy.

In a 2021 Gartner survey of 4,787 global employees assessing the evolving role of management, only 47% of managers are prepared for this future role. Effective managers of the future are those who can build and maintain fundamentally different relationships with their employees.

Yet, asking managers to lead with more empathy isn't enough. They need to be trained. 

This requires supporting leaders to have effective and regular one-on-ones and the ability to have micro performance conversations.

Empathy requires developing high levels of trust, connection and safety all aligned to working towards a positive future. It starts with leaders developing self-awareness. After all, the more we understand ourselves the more likely we are to take the time to understand others. Modelling a culture of acceptance and belonging in our teams.
Training managers to develop their self-awareness, in order to improve empathy takes time. Choosing a training program such as the Tribe of Trusted Leaders - Leadership Mastermind program that works with leaders over 12 months to improve self-awareness garners stronger leadership capability changes than a two day leadership program.


4. Focus on Fewer Priorities

Managers often struggle with letting go of doing the technical work that got them promoted in the first place. Mistakenly, they tend to do day-to-day work that they would be best to delegate to others, so they can focus on supporting their team.
Organisations need to make it clear to managers that they need to spend more time managing their people, especially now that this takes longer with the extra complexity and expectations on leading.

According to a 2021 survey of 4,787 global employees, 75% of HR leaders from midsize companies agree that managers’ roles have expanded, yet roles and teams are not structured to support well-being.

Support can include internal mentors or external coaches. As a leadership coach, I find that most of my work with coaching middle managers involves communicating to executives the bottlenecks and outdated systems that make it tough to lead the frontline.  Unintentionally, executives often have tunnel vision with their expectations around the amount of work that needs to get done and the quality that are often hampered by outdated systems or poorly trained employees. My role is often to unravel outdated expectations and processes that are no longer serving management, so they can focus on undetaking higher-impact work. The result is that managers feel more confident and relieved to get the support that they thought would never happen.

A manager's ability to be empathetic increases when they can see they are being supported in the organisation and given the resources to succeed. Whether that be training, more skilled staff, a change in reporting lines, a reduction in tasks or the ability to carve out more time for planning.

5. Updating Manager's Job Descriptions 

We all knew that the pandemic would change how we think about work. Making sense of how organisations can work best moving forward requires supporting managers who have borne the brunt of changing expectations and working conditions.

It is time to overhaul manager's responsibilities and for leadership to show that they matter. Managers have been overlooked and overworked for too long. After all, we can't expect managers to ensure their direct reports feel cared for and connected to them, if they feel neglected.

Highlighting empathy as a leadership development bullet point on your managers’ job descriptions not only creates thriving teams, but also has a tangible business impact. Gartner analysis shows that managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels of empathy. 

Improving Workplace Wellbeing

Improving the wellbeing of employees requires improving the wellbeing of managers.

Clearly communicating the context of senior decisions and expectations of high performance, reducing a culture of overwork, improving management training, providing support and reducing priorities or tasks are all steps in the right direction.


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