It’s Melissa Zwolinski, Charter’s research manager. I’ve spent the past month reading hundreds of pages from more than 40 pieces of research and writing on middle managers—a group of people who often have too many responsibilities and not enough power to truly lead their tasks. I’ve been a leader of middle managers in my own field, market research, and know the crunch they’re facing. The problems middle managers face are talked about so often that you would think we would have a solution for them by now. But over the past several weeks, I’ve found that proposed solutions too often amount to quick fixes or partial attempts.
Based on my read of recent literature, there are a few suggestions that you won’t find. It would be satisfying to be able to share “five responsibilities that all middle managers should stop doing tomorrow.” While we know that there are many tasks that could be done by others (booking business travel comes to mind), I fear that a cookie cutter approach wouldn’t be very reflective of the differences between industries, business maturity, and other factors. I also won’t tell you to excessively monitor your staff to try to identify inefficiencies or share ways to increase productivity--this problem is bigger than finding 30 more minutes of time in someone’s day. This proposal calls for treating employees like human beings who deserve compassion, respect, autonomy, and reasonable workloads.
Organizations’ expectations of middle managers have only grown in recent years, owing partially to pressure on the private sector. They’re increasingly asked to impact strategy and execution in addition to hiring and developing talent. They’re expected to handle complicated factors including employee burnout and a widespread childcare crisis.
This leads to managers who are:
- Spending 252% more time in meetings than they were in early 2020.
- Not well supported and not well positioned to lead their teams effectively.
- Experiencing elevated levels of burnout: 43% in Future Forum’s latest pulse report, compared to 37% for senior management and 32% for executives.
- Working an extra half day a week compared to individual contributors, amounting to an extra five weeks of work a year.
According to research from Mercer, managers believe reducing workload is the top action that will support their mental health and ease burnout. More managers could be hired, and should be hired. But with a recession looming, bringing on more managers to share the work isn’t currently feasible for many organizations. A long-term solution is necessary, and it shouldn’t wait.
What we need is a complete redesign of the middle manager function. Is what we’re asking of them even reasonable for one person? What are the tasks that should be discarded from their workdays? What responsibilities should move elsewhere, and which should be done away with entirely?
Based on our research, we’ve come up with a four-step process to aid people leaders in this redesign. You can use it to diagnose what your managers might stop doing—and what they should do more of—to deliver strong business results. Taking a comprehensive approach to this redesign will result in managers who are more engaged, less burnt out, and, somewhat counterintuitively, more productive.
Step 1: Pop the optimism bubble
Step 2: Provide short-term relief for your managers by creating shared “No-KRs.”
Step 3: Reimagine managers’ roles to improve business results
Step 4: Invest in an open-ended process
Yes, this process looks deceivingly simple. But we know that it will take months to complete and will require your great skill and experience to implement.
Step 1: Pop the optimism bubble.
Megan Reitz, professor at Hult International Business School, defines an optimism bubble this way: “You get more senior, you overestimate the degree to which other people are speaking up. You overestimate your approachability.” This can lead to a lack of a shared reality between leaders and middle managers, which can cause a delay in action or complete inaction in addressing the concerns of middle managers.
It is possible to overcome in organizations that have fostered a strong sense of psychological safety. Once trust is established, talk to middle managers about their pain points. Have them create a list of every task on their plate. This needs to include tasks that are easily overlooked, such as supporting employees through difficult life events and ordering lunch for team meetings. (Critically, this should not become an exercise in tracking what middle managers are doing every second of the day. Ensure your managers understand the purpose.)
Charter’s toolkit for implementing psychological safety in your workplace.
Set a time period and have your middle managers reflect on the tasks they spent their time on, how long they roughly took, and what may have made them more difficult than they needed to be. Ask them to look through the last four weeks of weeks worked on their calendars. They can use Charter’s worksheet, available in Notion and Google Docs, to organize this.
Next, come together and review their categorization of tasks. Come with questions such as what’s going well and what requires focus. What might they stop doing based on your joint review?
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