· Comment

Two tricks to ensure middle managers are empowered, not endangered

Middle managers are on the precipice of peril. Glassdoor's Employee Confidence Index shows a crisis in confidence among mid-level managers – the greatest decline in confidence among all employees this year.

Their shoulders are carrying the burden of pandemic-era pressures and the weight of this stress is exhausting.

So, one of three things is happening to this level of leadership:

  1. They burn out: Future Forum’s 2022 study showed that middle managers are at the highest risk for employee burnout, with 43% reporting these signs of severe fatigue.
  2. They jump ship: 55% of managers are watching for or actively seeking new roles, according to a recent Gallup survey.
  3. They get pushed out: In March 2023, Meta, Amazon, and Salesforce all significantly 'flattened' their structures by removing high numbers of middle management positions.

But not all senior leaders regard middle managers with this sense of superfluousness.

Andy Grove, former CEO and co-founder of Intel, stated: “As a middle manager, you are in effect a chief executive of an organisation yourself.”

He couldn’t be more right.

Middle managers hold the most powerful role in their organisations. They are not just a hierarchical connector between senior and frontline leadership, they are the difference between company growth or decline. They are the linchpin to accelerating true strategic or cultural change.

Line managers are the real guardians of company culture – why aren’t leaders acting on it?

So, what’s going on here? Middle managers play a critical role in organisational success, and yet they are most at risk of burning out, quitting, or being laid off.

From my nearly 20 years’ experience, I see two ways for HR to move middle managers towards a path of empowerment and avoid endangering them.

Firstly, middle managers are only regarded as irreplaceable if they are moving the needle on the strategic goals of the organisation. So you need the right person in position to start.

And, as a superb colleague once said to me: “You can train a turkey to climb a tree, but you’re better off hiring a squirrel”.

Are the right people being promoted into these middle management positions? Or are you falling into the trap of promoting people who are high performers but poor leaders?

DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast shows that only 12% of companies report confidence in the strength of their bench, so it’s critical for HR teams to reflect on how the organisation is assessing and building a pipeline of middle managers.

This level of leadership is too important for someone to be hired or promoted into without a sufficiently rigorous assessment, ideally placing them, whether physically or virtually, in the scenario of a middle manager to see how they perform live. Remember that past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour.

So how has this candidate demonstrated their ability to drive change, engage teams, and be entrepreneurial?

The line manager's role in engagement

Hiring the right person is not where HR responsibilities end. Which takes me to my second trick: ongoing growth.

To realise this newly promoted middle manager’s potential, the leader needs to feel their companies are invested in them – rather than discarding them at the first sign of business turbulence.

To make middle managers feel supported and increase their efficacy, HR teams should take a personalised approach to developing middle managers

The best place for HR teams to focus their efforts is on helping middle managers understand their personal impact in the organisation.

Rarely do I see a middle manager fired because of a lack of technical skill, it nearly always links back to how they manage themselves during times of stress or pressure.

Does the leader become paralysed in making decisions? Do they become aggressive in their instruction? Are they risk averse, or conversely, too impulsive?

When done well, personalised development helps middle managers grow in self-awareness and self-management which significantly enhances core behaviours like coaching, decision-making, and engaging their organisation.

Helping line managers to support staff better

At this year’s Association for Talent Development (ATD) conference, I ran a session about middle managers as the organisational unsung heroes. As part of this session, hundreds of your HR peers reflected that the very name 'middle manager' has unappreciated connections to middle man, middle school, middle child.

So, we rebranded this level of leadership: 'the strategic connector'. This gives me a lot of hope that HR teams truly see the value of these leaders and are ready to help.

Verity Creedy, is vice president of product management at HR consultancy DDI