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Don’t overlook your leaders: Why taking care of middle management matters

When you think about “taking care of employees,” who first comes to mind? It’s likely the team members who take up the biggest percentage of your workforce, right?

A perception exists in workplaces that programs targeting wellness, engagement or retention are designed specifically for individual contributors.  But what about middle management? Your team leaders, supervisors and managers.

Middle managers tend to be viewed as “above” and set apart from the average employee. Middle managers are the unsung heroes of the workplace, the glue holding everything together – they guide their teams, work to achieve goals and targets set by executive leadership, report results upward and seemingly do it all freed from the same challenges as the people they lead.

Why caring for middle management matters

Despite titles, rank, or seniority, everyone feels the weight of everyday life equally. Middle managers experience the same problems, concerns and emotions as all other employees, especially when there are surprising and undesirable business changes or industry disruptions. They’re people, not machines.

So, what’s behind the idea that the wellness, engagement or retention of middle management is less of a concern? Why do they sometimes get overlooked by executive leadership?

  • Managers can naturally embody the characteristics of strong leaders, such as resiliency, composure and positivity. But, the outward image doesn’t necessarily align with the internal reality.
  • Middle managers themselves often don’t recognize when they have a challenge that calls for a conversation with someone further up the organizational ladder.
  • They may resist speaking up in fear of appearing incompetent or weak.
  • They feel like they have to leave all their personal baggage at the door when they come to work and just focus on work. Middle managers may tell themselves, “I can’t have a bad day.” But, in reality, we bring our whole selves to work. All the personal matters we deal with impact our work performance to some degree.

If middle managers adopt this mindset that prevents them from speaking up to request assistance or call attention to an issue, nothing will get done to help them and problems can escalate.

Extra burdens that middle management bears

The bottling up of emotions is a serious problem, because often middle management is subject to even greater levels of stress than the average employee.

In addition to the personal issues we all encounter, middle managers can carry different levels of responsibility in the workplace. For example, they may have to:

  • Complete the everyday obligations of leading people, whether it’s:
  • Facilitate workarounds for budgetary and logistical constraints
  • Process challenges their company is facing, since they usually have greater visibility into the inner workings of the organization than the average employee
  • Take responsibility for their team’s results – or shortcomings – as the most visible person of their group
  • Handle the pressure to set a good example for their teams
  • Work longer hours, placing them at a high risk of burnout

A newfound focus on wellness for middle management

There’s never been a better time to reassess how your company thinks about and cares for middle management.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the high levels of stress, anxiety and burnout that were inflicted upon employees during this time, companies are now extremely attuned to the physical and mental wellbeing of their workforce. There’s a growing recognition among business leaders that wellness is important at every level of the organization and across functions to maintain high levels of productivity and quality performance.

Additionally, against the backdrop of the Great Resignation, business leaders are increasingly aware that effective employee engagement and retention initiatives translate into:

  • A stronger, more positive workplace culture
  • Prevention of knowledge and skills gaps, especially in critical roles such as management
  • Dollar savings associated with less turnover

Cultivating wellness, engagement and retention in middle management

You may notice that many of the following tips sound exactly how business leaders would approach the average employee. They are – and for good reason. Remember, middle managers are not different from any other employee when it comes to encountering challenges.

Instead, much of this discussion centers on overcoming the false perception that individual contributors are the only intended recipients of wellness programs, engagement initiatives or retention measures.

1. Clarify that your employee assistance program (EAP) is for everyone

Communicate with middle management about all the benefits of your EAP. Make it clear that it’s for their use as well. If they harbor concerns about perceptions of their direct reports, peers or superiors, remind them that it’s a confidential service.

2. Prioritize employee wellness – and make it part of your culture

If your company’s people aren’t well, then you can’t create a culture that is well.

Managers can get incredibly busy and feel pressured to be available to their teams all the time, but make sure that their commitment to your company doesn’t come at the cost of their mental or physical health. Communicate to your managers that the health and well-being of everyone at the company is a top company priority.

Along these lines, consider how your company can introduce more workplace flexibility as a means of promoting balance and health. Encourage managers to set healthy boundaries, such as not emailing their team members late at night.

It’s especially important that your managers participate in these activities. If you want to show the rest of your workforce that mental and physical health and work-life balance are company priorities, then this behavior must be modeled from the top down.

Executive leadership must buy in so that middle managers and employees alike don’t fear any penalties for engaging in pro-wellness practices.

3. Celebrate an open, safe workplace

One of the biggest concerns of middle managers is that they feel they don’t have anyone with whom they can discuss their issues without negative repercussions. To counteract this perception:

  • Encourage managers to have regular one-on-one meetings with their manager above them. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss challenges in an honest, straightforward way and feel heard.
  • Make middle managers aware of the resources they can access and the contacts they can reach out to if needed, other than their direct manager.
  • Encourage open conversations and transparency at all organizational levels. Managers should feel safe expressing ideas, opinions and concerns with both their peers and superiors.

4. Ask middle managers what they value

Just like any employee, middle managers are unique in what motivates and inspires them to put forth their best performance. It’s not always compensation based. Perhaps it’s:

  • Additional PTO
  • A special opportunity to stretch themselves and showcase their skills and abilities
  • Professional development in an area of particular interest to them

When you know what your middle managers want, you can better engage them.

5. Recognize middle managers for a job well done

Middle managers also enjoy accolades and recognition when they’ve earned it. Ask managers how they prefer to be recognized – it’s never a one-size-fits-all situation.

6. Develop skills that middle managers need in today’s workplace

Employees across the board regularly cite lack of development opportunities as a reason why they lost interest in their current role or left their company.

Just because someone has attained the ranks of middle management doesn’t mean that their need for learning, growth and development stops. It’s a continuum – managers still need to work on themselves and improve their knowledge and skills in a rapidly changing workplace. For example:

  • Emotional intelligence (EQ) has become a critically important skill for managers, especially in the new era of remote/hybrid work in which managers and employees are often dispersed and there are fewer opportunities to connect face to face.
  • As employees crave more autonomy, managers must become better delegators.
  • In our fast-paced world, the ability to make sound decisions at a quicker pace is highly valued.

Ongoing and relevant training and development:

  • Helps make middle managers more effective
    • Empowers them and bestows more self-confidence in their abilities
    • Provides the support they need to better engage their own employees
    • Prepares managers for the next step in their careers

7. Create pathways upward

For many managers, middle management isn’t the final stop in their career trajectory. Perhaps they dream of being a director, vice president or president. They want to know what’s next and how to get there. For a middle manager to feel engaged and enthusiastic, they need to feel that the potential for upward mobility exists.

Once you understand a manager’s overall goals, work with them to put together a career development plan. Perhaps pair them with a mentor who occupies the role they want to fill next or who has a skill they need to acquire.

Summing it all up

We don’t always immediately think of middle management when it comes to matters of workforce wellness, engagement and retention, but the reality is that middle managers are no different than individual contributors. We’re all human and experience similar issues. Ensuring middle managers’ wellbeing and inspiring them to put forth their best performance calls for a similar approach to how a business leader would encourage any employee. We’ve outlined seven steps for how your company can improve in displaying care for middle management.

To learn more about supporting your company’s leaders, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.