Middle managers have historically been overlooked and undervalued, yet organizations trust them and hold them responsible for resource allocation, project management and employee performance and behavior. They’re known to have crucial impact on employee retention, which is particularly important as we enter the third year of a pandemic that has already triggered many resignations, but leaders are often content to look away. Leaders frequently make inspiring statements about company intentions, which the rank-and-file may like, but middle management is the place where hose details get worked out, explained and enforced.
According to Laszlo Bock, co-founder and CEO of Humu, former head of people operations at Google and author of “WORK RULES! Insights from Inside Google to Transform How You Live and Lead” mediocre middle managers can depress performance by somewhere between five and ten percent. Even worse, perhaps, “the [level of] performance remains depressed for those individuals for up to two job rotations.”
A bad manager’s impact lingers not just because of employees’ feelings about that particular manager, but also because that experience “diminishes [employees’] trust in the company.” When a company permits a bad manager to stay and behave badly, Bock says, “People question whether the company really lives the values they espouse.” Ultimately, it’s leadership’s responsibility to help middle managers improve. These five non-financial investments can help shift middle management approaches for greater effectiveness.
Encourage managers to treat employees as full human beings. By learning what’s going on in team members’ lives, managers can reach a fair, compassionate and practical balance between individuals’ needs and goals and the business’s needs and goals. This starts with asking employees how they are and what’s in the way of their work—and really taking time to listen to their answers. Bock suggests that a rhythm of checking in deeply with individual employees during one out of every three conversations will establish both stronger relationships and generate useful data. The manager can provide personal acknowledgment and reassurance and then try to ease any structural barriers and workplace frustrations so employees can perform as successfully as possible.
Explain leadership decisions processes more completely than you’re used to. Bock thinks it’s much harder to be a manager today than it was before the pandemic started because so much work is now distributed rather than highly centralized and controlled. Unfortunately, he says, “Companies haven’t been clear about what their approach is going to be,” either in the short- or long-term. For example, in the current shifts from remote to hybrid work, managers can seem arbitrary when they tell team members which days they must be in the office without being able to explain the rationale that the leadership team actually has for that schedule. When middle managers don’t have the context, they may fill in the gaps with shrugs or suppositions—and, as Bock notes, although employees may not assume the worst every time, they’re very likely to decide that no one actually cares about them and their concerns.
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Provide specific talking points that managers can use when explaining decisions and changes. Part of any change process should be a communication plan. It’s unrealistic to assume that managers will naturally communicate even the most crucial topics the way a senior executive might—and, conversely, senior execs may not anticipate the questions a middle manager will be asked by frontline workers. Preparing managers to address their teams’ concerns is time well spent, rather than letting miscues or misunderstandings percolate into something damaging. Be sure to include some combination of information, recognition of individual impact, optimism that things will work out and scenarios that are informed by the actual needs of the managers’ team members.
Support managers to fix whatever problems they can. If managers are confident that leaders will have their backs when they try to reconcile their people’s concerns with their work requirements, they’ll be more innovative, more dedicated and certainly more relieved. Bock offers a telling example involving the arbitrariness of a staffing software program that doesn’t account for personal constraints such as commuting time and difficulty. Whenever employees get a schedule that doesn’t work for them, if the manager explains that it’s a function of the software, not the manager’s specific choice, and then offers to try to make adjustments, the employee feels less like cogs, and are less likely to blame the manager and more willing to find a compromise solution.
But managers need to be given the leeway to make these kinds of on-the-spot decisions—and to be backed up for making them if something goes awry from time to time. Leaders must be willing to hear about conflicts like this, to recognize when a structural problem like software is causing ongoing challenges and to help managers craft solutions.
Model the interactive, caring stance you want to see. “It’s not intuitive for most people to check on everyone and seek out their concerns, and then to try to make or manage the small changes that might benefit each individual,” says Bock, while also getting all the work done, preparing reports and presentations and managing up to their own boss. Bock has asked execs outright, “‘Do you think your managers are trying to be bad managers?’ and they’ve said, ‘No, they’re just doing their best.’” If you want your middle managers to perform better, he notes, it’s crucial to show them how it’s done. A great start is to create psychological safety in meetings so middle managers feel brave enough to ask real questions on their own behalf and on behalf of their team members.
When leaders share their thought processes and their time, they show middle managers how to get good results—and these demonstrations and explanations help create scaffolding for the managers’ subsequent actions with their teams. Management is hard, and hard to learn by trial and error. But the impacts of good middle management on staff retention and performance are so clear, it’s counterproductive for leaders not to make the investment.