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The Great Resignation is coming to decimate the ranks of middle management. The C-Suite should be worried

January 25, 2022, 3:42 PM UTC

It’s hard to overstate the impact a proactive, insightful manager can have on a business — and its employees. At a time of unprecedented turnover, feeling connected to, respected by, and engaged with one’s manager is vital. Not to mention, recent research from analytics company Visier shows that highly effective managers drive 48% greater profits for their organizations than average managers. 

On the whole, managers have spent much of the past two years like everyone else, struggling to keep up with their workloads while living through a pandemic — with some additional stressors. The C-suite puts the onus on managers to improve company culture, retention, and employee performance, while employees expect their manager to support, motivate, and value them. The pressure coming from both directions has made managers much more likely to burn out and look for a different role — often time eschewing future management roles altogether.  

Humu, an automated software platform that coaches managers on performance-driving work habits, surveyed 200 managers, 200 HR leaders, and analyzed data from 90,000 employees for its “State of the Manager Report,” released Tuesday. It found that being the boss is more challenging and less rewarding now than it’s ever been. It requires appealing to the mounting needs and demands of workers as well as satisfying the higher-ups, leaving folks in middle management with minimal time for their own advancement.

In 2020, a survey by Visier found that 71% of employees said they experienced burnout. A year later, that figure jumped to almost 90%. Few managers feel equipped to sufficiently support their employees. In Humu’s survey, almost half (44%) of managers said combating team burnout and balancing workloads was one of their three biggest priorities. And they’re also exhausted: Gallup research showed that burn out among managers jumped 25% last year.

Additionally, Humu found, hybrid work isn’t cutting it. Seven in 10 hybrid employees said they felt disconnected from their coworkers, and two in three felt left out when they’re not working in the office, according to HR Dive. Managers of hybrid employees have to go the extra mile to keep teams connected and aligned — and to combat biases, as they are prone to “on-site favoritism,” doling out more opportunities to the workers they see face-to-face, Humu reported. 

Managers can be an organization’s superpower or its Achilles heel, Humu CEO Laszlo Bock tells Fortune. “The rate of managers leaving is doubling. Suddenly you have an entire generation of leadership that’s just gone away; that’s potentially devastating.” 

The expansion of the manager role — and responsibility 

Bock co-founded Humu in 2017 after a decade leading people operations at Google, where he found that the bulk of the day-to-day experience of work depended entirely on a manager’s mood and stress level.

“Being a manager is brutally difficult in a fast-paced company, and it’s gotten so much harder during the pandemic,” Bock says. “Managers are the fulcrum on which the entire organization pivots. And nobody’s really focused on what that human being needs to be successful; there’s not enough attention given to what a good manager can do.” 

Between March and September of last year, 36% of employees quit their jobs without a new one lined up, which may be managers’ biggest challenge of all. In Humu’s survey, retention topped the list for manager’s biggest challenges, followed by hiring, team performance, and communication.

“Top managers have consistently stayed great, even through the pandemic. But managers at the bottom are getting worse at communication, listening, and feedback,” Dr. Stefanie Tignor, head of data science and insights at Humu, says.

Heading into performance-review season, employee expectations remain sky high. Employees who don’t see growth opportunities at their companies are eight times more eager to leave, even if they’re otherwise happy at work, Humu’s research found. This may not come as a surprise to managers, about half of whom (47%) told Humu that they struggle with giving adequate feedback, coaching, and providing enough career development opportunities. 

It takes a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, but almost nothing to poach a worker from a disengaged manager, Humu found.  

The disappearing manager

Managers are twice as likely to quit their jobs as are individual contributors, Humu’s study found, to Bock’s surprise. “It’s rare to see such a big difference among people who sit side by side,” he says. 

Going into 2022, Humu’s survey recommends company leadership help overworked managers by offering them their own opportunities to advance, and providing managers with numerous direct reports more support.

For managers who are struggling, Bock offers this simple advice: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. When you’re exhausted, you can’t care for the people around you, and you’ll make worse decisions.”

The bad news, however, is that absent outside intervention or top-down reorganization, being a manager will only get harder this year, even if the complications of the pandemic stay the same. 

“People don’t want to be managers anymore,” Bock says. “You see this in engineering; the best engineers don’t want to be managers. The best salespeople don’t want to be sales managers. We’ll see that more across different functions: People saying it’s not worth a 20% pay raise to deal with that headache and having more layers of management on top of me telling me what to do.”

The solution, Humu’s research suggests, must come from the top: Workers will aspire to take on management positions if those roles are exciting, rewarding, and well-supported.

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