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The secret to transforming workplace culture? Better middle managers.

December 6, 2023

“Middle management” is a euphemism for a dead-end career and the butt of many an office joke, and I’m on a mission to get middle managers the recognition and support they deserve.

Why? Because middle managers are the key to healthier, connected, more productive workplaces and more satisfied employees—the kind who stay with an organization to grow their careers.

Research backs up the importance of middle managers—particularly to employees. “… [R]elationships with management, in particular, account for 86 percent of workers’ satisfaction with their interpersonal ties at work,” according to research on bosses from McKinsey & Company. The 2023 Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report concluded that number one thing companies can do to improve employee productivity is “give them a better manager.”

I agree with Gallup, but I might alter that statement slightly to say the number one thing companies can do is support managers so they can manage people better.

And many organizations are missing the mark when it comes to support. In a McKinsey report, just 20 percent of managers “strongly agree that their organizations help them be successful people managers.”

It’s no wonder that so many middle managers today feel stressed, over worked and under-valued. Sandwiched between executives and individual contributors, they feel pressure from above and below. They must cultivate buy-in for top-down executive decisions like return-to-work mandates. They’re pressured to ensure employees are five-star satisfied with work—at a time when employee mental health challenges are high. They carry the burden to lead teams through never-ending change and uncertainty, but they’re on the hook to deliver real results. These leaders don’t have executive privileges but they aren’t quite part of the team they manage either. At many organizations, they aren’t seen as a distinct employee cohort requiring specialized communications or recognition.

How can we do better for these unsung heroes? The first thing is to recognize their importance to the health of any organization and then create the conditions for them to succeed. Here are a few ways for CEOs and CMOs to grow managers’ potential.

  • Middle managers should be a separate cohort and part of your overall communications planning. Strategy updates, CEO changes, positive financial results, reorgs: with any major announcement, it’s your people leaders who need to translate the news for their teams and give them more details. Don’t leave them to echo high-level messages. Just before or after any major announcement, help them anticipate employee questions and give them real information, additional talking points, or materials to share with employees
  • Support their well-being. Positive, healthy managers will manage people better. If your managers are stressed, flying off the handle, or don’t have time to do their jobs, they can’t show up for their teams. Ask them what they need. Consider extra benefits for managers. Remind them regularly that their well-being matters and make them feel valued.
  • Invest in first-time managers. With few exceptions, great managers are made, not born. Give young managers a management mentor. The real value is in managers helping managers through open, trusting conversations.

  • Develop a regular communications series or training program where managers come together to share and learn. Managers need more than videos. They need active workshops, tool kits and other opportunities to focus on the people-management side of their jobs. Fostering open dialogue among managers across the organization also gives middle managers allies—which is important for what can be an isolating role.
  • Make your middle managers part of the employee feedback loop. If you want to get the pulse on the culture of an organization, look to them; they have their ears closer to the ground. Give them an opportunity to share their perspectives on how employees are faring. Plus, asking them makes them feel valued and valuable in their roles.
  • Give them tools to onboard new employees. A critical part of any retention strategy is providing a seamless, positive onboarding experience to new hires. Managers are the most important people to making that process successful. Give them an onboarding guide that charts the communications flow, provides a guide to building team connections, and more. The goal is to make onboarding consistent, positive, and energizing for all.
  • Set the human qualities you expect managers to uphold. A great manager is a positive coach. Put these qualities in their job description. Create manager recognition programs for those who exemplify the values.
  • Make sure they have time to manage people. “Companies treat middle management as a catchall,” says McKinsey, “requiring managers to spend much of their time handling nonmanagerial work and navigating organizational bureaucracy rather than allowing them to focus on the most important role at an organization: fostering talent.”

Bottom line: Investing in high quality people leaders has a positive multiplier effect on the culture of your entire organization. Taking time to understand what middle managers need, helping them develop positive relationships, and addressing their challenges can have a big impact on a company’s culture. High quality middle managers are the secret to making workplaces feel and function a whole lot better.

A version of this article was featured in Adweek in December 2023.

POSTED BY: Betsy Henning

Betsy Henning