4 middle management mistakes leaders can’t afford to make

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By Nicole Schreiber-Shearer, Future of Work Specialist at Gloat
Trulli

Learn how to recalibrate middle management strategies by identifying what not to do

 

As the world of work rapidly changes, so does the role of the middle manager. While this position was once thought of as a bureaucracy layer mainly responsible for passing information down, they’re now at the helm of one of any organization’s most important priorities: developing talent.

Once the C-suite sets company imperatives, it’s up to middle managers to deliver the results their executives envisioned by inspiring their teams to take action. They’re also responsible for cultivating connectivity amongst hybrid workers, empowering employees to hone new skills, and embracing technological innovations that will help their organizations prepare for the future of work.

With so many high-priority items on their agendas, it’s easy to understand why middle managers are feeling the pressure. Nine out of ten employees in this role reported burnout within the last year and more than two-thirds said they feel stuck in their current position. Fortunately, there are a few steps leaders can take to turn things around.

How the role of the middle manager is evolving

Faced with shifting consumer expectations and pressures from leadership to do more with less, many middle managers find themselves with more work to juggle than ever before. In addition to balancing a demanding workload, there are also some challenging stereotypes that middle managers have to contend with.

According to Bryan Hancock, a McKinsey Partner and co-author of Power to the Middle, the undervaluing of middle management is a relatively new phenomenon. “Starting in the early nineties, the advent of email communication meant that organizations no longer required middle managers to be the ones translating what was coming down,” he explains. “It became a world where some people envisioned, ‘Hey, now that we can communicate directly with our employees, do we even need middle managers?’”

Despite these negative perceptions, the role of the middle manager has only become more crucial—particularly during periods of profound disruption like COVID-19. During the pandemic, middle management provided an essential layer of support that helped many employees navigate the shift to remote working, in addition to changes in operating models and enterprise-wide priorities.

“When you had COVID, you had a real need for organizations to adapt and for individuals to connect with people over the course of the pandemic,” Hancock notes. “So now, you’re looking at this human need that has come up combined with how much more dynamic organizations are and you see why middle managers really need to be navigators.”

Inside today’s middle management crisis

The impact of middle managers cannot be understated. In fact, these managers account for 70% of the variance in their team’s engagement levels. Yet, these leaders are often the ones struggling the most. Middle managers report more stress and burnout than the people they manage and their resignation rates are significantly higher.

Rather than letting burnout rates rise, executives must reimagine the role that middle management plays in their organization and find ways to better support these leaders to make it possible to deliver against broader company results.

How to avoid the top middle management mistakes most leaders make

So how do you get middle managers to drive the most critical company initiatives, without exacerbating burnout? At a time when resources are constrained more than ever, here are four steps leaders can take to upgrade their middle management approach:

#1. Recognize the difference between individual skills and leadership skills
Rather than thinking only about who has the most experience or technical skills, leaders must consider the potential downsides associated with moving various employees into management positions.

“I think we have to be more thoughtful about who gets to wear the badge and say ‘I take the responsibility of leading people in this company,’” explains Bill Schnaninger, McKinsey Senior Partner and Power to the Middle co-author. “If you viewed it from a risk lens, we likely wouldn’t make many of the appointments that have happened. Just think about it as an amplification effect—bad leadership is the gift that keeps on giving,” he concludes.

#2. Leveraging skills insights to surface the best talent across teams
Now that there’s a new generation of skills intelligence tools on the market, leaders can’t make decisions about who’s most qualified for middle management roles blindly. Instead, they must harness these innovations to gain an in-depth understanding of the knowledge various middle managers are bringing to the table.

According to Hancock, “The capability to track the skills people have over time, I think you can get a pretty robust understanding of what managers are good at what. Then we can understand what managers we should match to some of the jobs where those underlying skills as a manager are going to be most important.”

#3. Look at soft skills
While it’s impossible to predict with absolute certainty who will make the best middle manager, Schaninger points to a few telltale signs to help leaders assess whether or not an employee is cut out for the job. “By disposition, you have a higher likelihood of success if your managers prefer to be in a team context, if they have a high orientation towards achievement, and they do not view it through the lens of the impact on them first,” explains Schnaninger. When it comes to warning signs that someone might not be a strong middle manager, he suggests avoiding people who are narcissistic, don’t handle change well, and struggle to take initiative.

#4. Focus and invest in leadership training
Leaders shouldn’t assume that every middle manager will be able to hit the ground running without any training or support. “You need to recognize that not everyone is a great people manager right out of the box,” Hancock reminds leaders.

So he encourages executives to think about how they can train employees to become strong middle managers and how their organizations can create a space for managers to thrive by equipping them with the guidance and resources they need. “I think it’s a requirement for leaders to both have the right narrative and message coming from the top in terms of what we’re thinking about people, as well as creating the space,” Hancock summarizes.

To learn more about how to upgrade your middle management strategies for the new world of work, check out our guide, 3 visionaries, 1 strategy, which includes insights from Al Gore, Arianna Huffington, and Josh Bersin.

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