McKinsey finds middle managers are spending little time actually managing—here’s why

March 14, 2023, 11:38 AM UTC
Woman Looking At Paperwork With Office Colleague
Managers spend about a quarter of their time managing employees, according to McKinsey.
Getty Images

Good morning!

Middle managers aren’t spending nearly as much time managing as one might assume. A new survey from McKinsey finds that, on average, managers only spend about 28% of their time managing employees. In a world where proper people management has become all the more essential to retaining top talent, that could be cause for concern. But experts say there are a few best practices leaders can implement to ensure managers spend ample time guiding and empowering employees.

First, realize that managers are pulled in several—often competing—directions, says Emily Field, a partner at McKinsey and one of the report’s authors.

“Middle managers are hearing and feeling mixed messages on how they should be spending their time. And this is where HR and business executives can play a role,” she tells Fortune. Managers spend the bulk of their time in four categories: administrative work, individual-contributor work, strategy-focused work, and talent and people management. 

Managers reported spending nearly one full day each week, about 18% of their time, on administrative tasks alone. They spend about 23% of their time on strategy-focused work and about 31% on individual-contributor work. Field says that employers, in recent years, have shifted to incentivize and reward more individual-contributor work within organizations.

“If a middle manager feels like their individual-contributor work is the highest value work, then it makes good sense that that’s where they will put a lot of their energy. The question is, what is that at the expense of?” she asks. Unfortunately, the answer is often people. 

For HR leaders looking to tip the balance back toward people management, Field says they should focus on three actions:

– Understand what’s getting in the way of managers focusing their time on people leadership and high-value work. That often means removing invisible hurdles like organizational bureaucracy that distract from the real work of fostering talent and automating menial tasks to free up a manager’s time.

– Managers will change their behavior based on incentives. Motivate and reward them for spending time developing their direct reports. 

– Clearly define what it means to be a manager at your organization. Discuss the expected behaviors, implement necessary training, and outline the amount of time they should invest in managerial tasks.

“You can’t manifest great managers. You have to develop them,” says Field.

Amber Burton

Reporter's Notebook

The most compelling data, quotes, and insights from the field.

Quit rates have slumped slightly since the height of the Great Resignation in 2021 and 2022, but they've remained high. As of 2023, there were about 2.5 quits per 100 jobs.

"Quits are seen as a measure of labor-market strength—people don’t leave jobs voluntarily unless they think they can find new ones—and the past two decades weren’t exactly known for strong labor markets." —Bloomberg

Around the Table

A round-up of the most important HR headlines, studies, podcasts, and long-reads.

- Silicon Valley Bank employees reportedly received bonuses just hours before the bank went under. CNN

- The union at construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar voted to confirm a new labor agreement, avoiding a strike. Reuters

- By cutting middle managers, companies eliminate the very people who could help them weather economic uncertainty. Insider

- Some men don’t want to give up the extra domestic responsibilities they took on during the pandemic. New York Times


Everything you need to know from Fortune.

White lie. A viral TikTok encouraged people to lie about working at Twitter on their resume. The platform's large number of layoffs would make it nearly impossible for the HR department to verify employment, the TikToker reasoned. —Eleanor Pringle 

Extended sabbath. Three women quit their jobs after reaching a breaking point of workplace burnout. “I was burned out to the core.” —Alicia Adamczyk 

Childcare > retirement. About 20% of mothers who considered taking extended leave from work to stay home with their kids said they did so with no regard for the potential hit to their retirement savings. —Megan Leonhardt

This is the web version of CHRO Daily, a newsletter focusing on helping HR executives navigate the needs of the workplace. Today’s edition was curated by Paolo Confino. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet