Fi 1 Middle Managers 1

How to Retain Middle Management and Grow Their Skills: Part 1

by Gary Payne, Robert Satterwhite, and Ann Wheeler

Employee retention is a hot topic for 2023.

As economic instability continues, organizations will need to lean on leaders across all levels to maintain stability, profitability, and institutional knowledge.

In a Fall 2022 report from Slack’s Future Forum, 10,677 survey respondents from the global workforce reported an increase in burnout; it rose 8% from May to August 2022. Among US workers, the numbers were quite drastic – burnout rose to 47%.

Two of every five US respondents said they were burnt out, and the highest number of those respondents were middle managers.

These numbers should provide a wake-up call because, as you will see below, middle managers play a vital role in any organization.

Why is it important to develop and retain middle managers?

Middle managers are your connecting leaders.

They often serve as:

  • Liaisons between supervised employees and leadership overseeing the flow of ideas, strategy, and progress within and across an organization
  • Change agents who drive employee initiatives and build organizational culture
  • Team builders also heavily involved in the hiring process
  • Keepers of detail-oriented, institutional knowledge

Middle managers know what motivates their team. They help people answer, “Why do I matter to the company?” and help them see how their role fits within the overall vision.

A very savvy manager is the one who knows your employees best and has the most impact over their experience with the company. You often hear the saying, “Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers,” but the inverse is also true. When a strong middle manager leaves an organization, some of their direct employees tend to follow, and your talent losses increase even further.

Why is middle management so stressful?

Middle management often operates on the front lines of organizational change, which demands a taxing balance of rigor and flexibility. They are the ones who are tasked with handling more of the honest, direct conversations that happen in work environments.

For example, during COVID-19, middle managers were responsible for helping others adjust to remote work environments. And when companies chose to institute return-to-office policies, it was middle managers who had to work through the details of employees’ schedules.

In a recent survey conducted by Odgers Berndtson US, out of the 606 survey respondents, 41% wanted to retain the option of a hybrid work environment as opposed to fully remote work or in-office. Imagine you are a middle manager who knows hybrid work is popular among employees, but leadership has decided it wants everyone in-office full time, and now you must deliver the news.

Middle managers are the ones who implement policies, even if those policies are unpopular with employees, while they continue to remain the primary motivators for their teams.

To add an additional level of pressure, while middle managers are often the ones you call upon during a crisis, they still have to think about new strategic initiatives and big picture perspectives—even if there’s not enough time to do so.

Lack of leadership development

Internal hires often seem like a no-brainer. Your organization retains that employee’s loyalty and commitment and the knowledge about systems, process, and customers that is important to success. You have rewarded your employee and shown the rest of the company potential career paths; if people work hard and meet expectations, you will provide possibilities.

And yet, so often, internal hires who take on new roles struggle with the responsibilities then leave.

Individual contributors, particularly at the middle management level, will excel and get promoted, but their targeted skillset still remains that of an individual contributor. They need to learn to move away from the trigger response of a “fix it” mindset and learn how to delegate and promote team accountability. However, they are often not provided with the development and training they need.

When middle managers are promoted without training, they are being set up to fail, at which point your organization loses both the leadership role and the individual contributor skills you initially valued.

What makes a middle level manager successful?

Some important skills for successful middle managers are:

Resolve conflict

A middle manager needs to handle, address, and transform conflict.

They can take a conflict and translate it into a productive discussion about individual and team growth.

It’s important to note how middle managers set the tone for these types of conversations. If they remain calm and present the ideas as part of a development discussion, then the feedback generally will be received in the same way.

Embody organizational values and reinforce positive behaviors

Middle managers must possess a deep understanding of your organization’s values and choose to embody behaviors clearly linked to those values. A leader who can translate values into expected behaviors helps develop and build your organization’s culture.

Middle managers oversee the behaviors that get rewarded, so it’s important they are able to reinforce those behaviors both with their own actions and among their teams.

Agility and coaching skills

The art and science of putting together an effective team is complex. Middle managers must develop alternative options, understand, and meet metrics, and even identify new key performance indicators (KPIs) as teams change and grow.

Leadership agility is key to middle manager success.

A huge part of that flexibility is knowing how to coach and develop the team’s capabilities to bring out the best attributes and efficiency.

Keep in mind, there’s a big difference between mentors and coaches. Mentors do a lot of talking and teaching; they relay their own experiences and make suggestions. Coaching is about listening and asking questions.

In the second part of our piece, we will be discussing how employers can help motivate middle managers and grow their skills. In the meantime, if you have any burning questions, you can get in touch with us here.

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