Middle Managers Are Exhausted. Top Teams Need to Listen.

The biggest threat to businesses is not a recession — it’s overburdened managers.

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For years, I’ve worked with businesses to build diverse and inclusive workplaces and to address issues such as negative team dynamics and conflict. These days, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to start with a message to managers. I tell them, “I see you. I know how hard you’re working. I know how difficult this time is for you. And I’m here to honor that.” Frequently, this brings up many emotions, as many of these middle managers are feeling the effects of prolonged stress and burnout.

While the past few years have been tumultuous and overwhelming for just about everyone, middle managers have faced extraordinary challenges. As businesses have gone from crisis to crisis, the number of complex responsibilities that have suddenly been thrust onto managers is astounding. With each new challenge, organizations have told managers that the solutions involve them engaging in new forms of leadership.

Social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have called on corporations to transform and reckon with forms of injustice. The pandemic brought on a global crisis across all industries along with a widespread shift to remote and hybrid work, which are now a norm in the business world. Throughout the Great Resignation, managers have had to deal with unfilled positions, recruit employees in a tight labor market, and work to retain employees by keeping them feeling engaged, trusted, and respected.

The problem is not just that all of this takes time. It’s also the fact that these challenges have required managers to stretch beyond the leadership skill sets that many possess or were trained for. For example, managers used to be trained to avoid asking their employees questions about their personal lives, for fear that employees might perceive some form of bias. Asking a woman whether she has children, for example, could be viewed as a way of assuming she’s less likely to successfully take on a big project. Now, suddenly, managers are being told that they must engage in deep conversations with their employees in order to adjust for their unique work-life challenges. These changes in expectations can add additional stress for managers as they aim to strike a balance in developing deeper relationships while avoiding any perceptions of bias.

To make matters worse, middle managers face pressure from their employees and from higher-ups.


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Comment (1)
Ronald McGarvey
Ah, yes, the middle managers' lament! I seems like just yesterday that I was reading Oncken and Wass's HBR article titled "Who's got the monkey?" Although, there have been significant changes and advances in leadership, management, and organizations, from Hamilton's article, it appears that mid-level management capabilities, structure, and organization have not kept pace.