There’s never been a tougher time to be a middle manager. Not only are they the poster children for corporate inefficiency, the butt of pop culture classics from Dilbert to The Office, and the first on the chopping block when it’s time for layoffs—these days, middle managers face even greater challenges.
As successive workplace trends spur organizations to prioritize the employee experience, middle managers are tasked with ensuring that workers feel engaged, supported, and able to maintain a healthy work-life balance. And as executives establish in-office policies, middle managers are charged with enforcing unpopular mandates and/or overseeing a dizzying patchwork of hybrid work arrangements.
However, organizations are failing to recognize an obvious yet overlooked truth: Middle managers are employees, too. And essential ones.
Since O.C. Tanner began measuring engagement and cultural sentiment, leaders’ sentiment about company culture has been more positive compared with individual contributors. This year, that changed.
Our 2023 Global Culture Report, reflecting input from more than 36,000 employees and leaders in 20 countries, indicates that leaders are in a state of severe distress. Due to factors ranging from less recognition to multiplying responsibilities, leaders’ work experiences are nowhere near as positive as those of their reports. In fact, leaders were 26% more likely to say that they had “nothing more to give in their jobs.”
A recent Future Forum report reinforces these findings, revealing that the leaders with the worst sentiment and experience scores are middle managers.
Managers often internalize their struggles, figuring that staying strong amid escalating responsibilities is just part of the job. But middle management burnout is real—and it’s leading to trouble.
A raft of responsibilities
In our research, roughly two-thirds of leaders (61%) reported having more responsibilities at work now than they did pre-pandemic, an experience shared by a third of individual contributors (34%). Among leaders with increased responsibilities, the odds of high anxiety increase by 21%. Anxiety is linked to a sixfold increase in burnout rates.
Middle managers—organizations’ invaluable shock absorbers—are in a particularly difficult spot. They lack senior leaders’ superior access to support and resources and must enforce policies they may not endorse. Mid-level and entry-level leaders were 33% and 47% less likely to feel appreciated, respectively, than senior leaders. They were also more likely than senior leaders to say that since 2020, it’s been harder to mentor employees, communicate effectively with them, and provide them with the freedom to innovate.
To relieve middle management burnout, companies must extend the focus on employee experience to the higher reaches of the org chart. Here’s how.
When managers feel connected to their teams, the odds that an organization’s culture will thrive increase 18-fold. Managers also benefit from stronger connections with one another.
A European retail bank with branches in more than 50 countries introduced an accreditation process to boost managers’ skills and forge a sense of managerial community. Managers earned credits for workshops on topics like building trust and aligning teams, which strengthened their capabilities and connections.
Bring middle managers into decision-making
When managers are involved in shaping (not merely enforcing) initiatives, policies, and programs, they’re more likely to back them.
A North American accounting and professional services firm wanted its employees and leaders to feel more valued. Before introducing a new online recognition program, it invited leaders to experience the program and provide feedback. That extra step paid off, with a 10% rise in manager engagement.
Decoupling recognition from compensation
Leaders often brush off the notion that they require recognition, with a third (37%) claiming their salary makes recognition unnecessary. But our research reveals the compelling counter-finding that appreciation reduces leaders’ anxiety by 67%.
Leaders’ higher salaries don’t compensate for lack of appreciation. Nonmonetary recognition is essential. Our research shows that it creates a lasting impact when it’s personal, sincere, and tied to one’s efforts or achievements. Middle managers are frequently called upon to recognize their team members’ unique contributions. They should also be on the receiving end of thoughtful recognition.
Empower “modern leaders”
Since 2020, entry-level and mid-level leaders have struggled more than senior leaders to practice “modern leadership”—a collaborative, democratized approach that can greatly reduce managers’ workloads in the long run.
Modern leadership requires new skills and techniques. Targeted support in this area can pay huge dividends over time.
Getting paid more doesn’t mean that a manager is less human. If there was ever an easy time to be a middle manager, now is not it. Companies prioritizing the employee experience would do well to broaden their scope upward. After all, middle managers are employees, too.
Gary Beckstrand is VP of the O.C. Tanner Institute.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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