Trends in engagement over the last few years underscore that mid-level managers are feeling more pressure and “squeeze” than ever before, leading to increasing levels of burnout and disengagement.
Research has found that although engagement levels for top executives and senior management have rebounded since the pandemic, mid-level managers’ engagement has been faltering and stagnating, remaining essentially unchanged in 2022 following a significant decrease in 2019.
Utilising survey responses from people managers across a wide range of industries in more than 125 countries, perceptions of support across five key areas were evaluated. People managers were asked to rate the support they receive, from “not true for me” to “could be improved” to “true for me.” Only about half of people managers felt any one of five areas was true for them, and although half of any given support element was present across managers, only 16% of those managers reported being supported across all five of these elements, with about half (49%) only having zero, one or two of these support elements present for them.
Factors contributing to this decline include a work-life balance for managers that continues to deteriorate. There has been a four-point drop around managers getting the support they need from their managers in order to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and managers report an 11-point drop around having programs and practices that make it easier to address personal commitments.
Additionally, concerns around staffing and talent remain key areas for distress as well — only 43% of people managers feel they have sufficient staffing levels to get work done, and just 55% feel their company is retaining the people it needs to achieve business goals (a slight improvement of three points over the last year). This creates added pressure on managers to cover the gap, as well as balance top-down demands against the worries and needs of their teams. With these added pressures, managers are feeling underappreciated and underpaid and perceive a lack of effective processes and systems to sustain productivity, meaning they are being asked to do more, with less support.
Yet, manager support is proving to be key to helping to amplify leadership impact and drive business performance. The research found that ratings of financial performance were more than 50% higher when there is full manager support (coupled with high leadership presence and influence) than when manager support was absent or lacking. Thus, providing strong manager support is not just a way to create a more engaging experience for these managers, but a necessary factor to achieve business goals.
Organisations can help address these pressures by re-examining and updating HR and talent processes around recruiting and onboarding, as well as career development and recognition, rebalancing manager role expectations and helping them to develop the skills needed to be successful in their role. But these efforts will take time to put in place and have an impact. In the immediate term, organisations can shift the expectations placed on managers in ways that have been shown to reduce the stress they feel and help them through these challenging times.
How organisations can ease the squeeze on managers:
Emphasise team leadership:
Overcome the tyranny of accountability by reframing a leader’s success. Managers need to be supported in redefining their role, moving from the feeling that they alone are accountable for delivering on business goals to reimagining their role as an orchestrator of team success. It is about the efficiency, productivity and performance of the team as much as it is about the efforts of its leader. And team success is what managers should be recognized and rewarded for.
Ensure your managers replenish their energy by paying attention to their mental and physical well-being. Understand that people can only concentrate on complex tasks for an average of 90 minutes or less at a time. Effective management should not require superpowers and we need to scale back expectations around how much physical and mental energy managers can commit to their role. Breaks, respites and investments in physical well-being are not indulgences or nice-to-haves to preserving the value a manager can bring to his or her team and, more broadly, to the organization. Set realistic expectations and be sure to actively promote the wide range of tools and techniques available to support energy management and good mental and physical health.
Recent studies conducted during the pandemic have shown that practicing self-compassion can reduce burnout. One study showed that spending a minute or so each day reflecting on a time when the manager forgave himself or herself for a mistake in the past resulted in more frequent demonstrations of caring leadership when the manager interacted later in the day with direct reports. Encouraging managers to take time to more fully appreciate what they have, and to “give themselves a break” when they stumble or fall short, leads to less cynicism, greater sense of belonging, enhanced self-esteem, increased sense of self-control, and lessened feelings of anxiety and stress.
Now is the time to take action to support, energise and invigorate people managers and reduce the burden and pressure they may be feeling to create happier, healthier and more engaged leaders — a critical ingredient when looking to build a fully engaged and activated workforce. Care should be taken not to pile more on managers’ plates, but rather to ensure the day-to-day experience of managers and their teams is aligned with your desired organisational culture and can help them deliver on the strategy and vision of the business.
Seymour Adler is a Managing Director and Global Leadership Assessment & Development Practice Leader at Kincentric. He leads the implementation of leadership development, talent assessment, succession, and talent management programs for organisations around the world and across a variety of industries.