Around the world, companies are facing several significant workforce challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers, balancing the demand for flexibility with the needs of the business, and improving DE&I efforts. But one additional challenge is looming, and it's one that many people aren’t talking about: a crisis for the middle layer of management.
Managers are overwhelmed and exhausted. They often feel trapped by old hierarchical structures that have not adapted to new realities, and leadership expects them to meet new demands for which they are ill-prepared. The role of a manager is still essential, but many managers feel that the world has changed around them, and they aren’t sure how to adapt.
The struggles managers are facing right now can be largely captured by three significant shifts:
1. Rapidly changing work environment
The hierarchical organizational structure that originated during the Industrial Revolution has been gradually flattening for decades, but never as quickly as it has in the past ten or fifteen years with the increase in digitization and the advent of the agile movement. However, the real watershed moment for old hierarchies was the COVID-19 pandemic. As work shifted from in-person to hybrid or remote, many managers wondered how to manage people they couldn’t see daily, and a lack of training and support exacerbated the challenge.
2. Increasing ambiguity
With the shift to flexible work models, managers must make decisions about people they don’t see. In addition, as more companies adopt agile processes and work becomes more project-oriented, managers may not even have direct oversight of people on their teams. This level of ambiguity is something many managers were not trained to handle.
3. Rising call for “soft skills”
With an increasing focus on such engagement metrics as psychological safety, employee well-being, and inclusion, managers need skills that aren’t intuitive. Things like empathy are impossible to mimic authentically. Employees who don’t feel heard or understood may leave their jobs because of a “bad manager,” although the reality is more complex - often it’s a good manager who just wasn’t prepared for the employee needs of the modern era.
To help your middle layer of managers to adapt to new realities, consider some of the following approaches:
1. Shift the focus from managing to leading
Adults don’t need to be “managed;” work should be managed, but adults should be led. Refocus management roles toward leading people while expecting individuals to manage their workload independently.
2. Move from “me” to “we”
Change the metrics for management success from “me” to “we”—in other words, from a focus on the individual manager’s results to team results.
3. Train middle managers like they’re upper level
Start focusing development efforts on your middle layer of managers. Give them opportunities to learn coaching and feedback methods and approaches that improve engagement.
4. Introduce automation
Any management tasks that can be automated should be automated. These tasks could even include automated scoring to help evaluate direct reports for raises. Such scoring would not replace human evaluation, but it would help integrate easily measurable metrics into a score for evaluation.
5. Shift from performance management to performance development
Especially in a hybrid or remote work world, managers need to move away from direct management of individual performance and toward developing their reports to manage their own work. Managers should become comfortable frequently giving and receiving feedback to allow for constant development.
With a focus on a global shortage of skilled workers and a need to develop upper-level managers, it can be easy for organizations to forget the middle. But neglecting this management layer is like neglecting proper support structures when building a home. The foundation and the décor may be excellent, but if the walls aren’t properly constructed, the entire structure will collapse. Focusing on developing the middle layer of management will keep your organization strong and help identify future upper-level leaders—and keep them around long enough to promote them.