It’s an open secret that many middle managers feel burnt out, anxious and stressed. So how can we support them to help us meet our organisational goals?

You may have heard a term called the ‘frozen middle’. This happens when there’s a lead team at the top of the organisation that’s aligned and clear on exactly what the organisation needs to achieve, but middle managers are disconnected from that message.

Maybe they don’t understand it, maybe it hasn’t been communicated correctly, or maybe they’re just not as engaged and inspired by the organisation as the senior managers. The energy just isn’t trickling into the rest of the organisation and we get the frozen middle.

Maybe middle managers don’t understand it, maybe it hasn’t been communicated correctly, or maybe they’re just not as engaged and inspired by the organisation as the senior managers’

Unless you can unlock those middle managers, it’s going to be impossible to achieve your organisational goals. 

Right now in Australia, it’s the start of a new financial year. There’s often a lot of planning and excitement about the year ahead, and what you’re going to achieve over the next 12 months. It’s the time we set down our big hairy audacious goals – our five-year or ten-year goals.

It’s also the perfect time to consider if you have a strong set of middle managers.


Misery in the Middle

Indeed’s 2023 Wellness at Work research reports that more than half (53%) of all middle managers are feeling stressed or burnt out, and almost half (46%) are experiencing anxiety. This can be because middle manager roles are really tricky.

If you’re in senior management or an executive-level role, your day-to-day job is probably not involved in operations. Let’s say that your background is in accountancy, and you’re a CFO. The amount of time that you’re doing accounting is probably quite limited. You’re more likely to spend time on the strategic direction of the organisation and on leading your people. 

But a middle manager with an accounting background, who could be your financial accountant, is likely to be spending 70% of their time on accounting. The other 30% is supposed to be dedicated to everything else, but actually what they find is that everything else is taking up 60% of their time, and they end up with a job that takes 130% of their working hours. 

As senior managers, we must ask how we acknowledge this. How do we release the valve a little bit on middle managers to enable them to be the most effective in the organisation? Because if our middle managers aren’t effective, the rest of our organisation won’t be either.

How do we release the valve a little bit on middle managers to enable them to be the most effective in the organisation?’

First, you need to check that you have the right people in management roles. I’ve talked about this in previous posts, so I’m going to assume that you do have the right people in place. The next question is, how do we support them effectively? 


3 Top Tips for Supporting Middle Managers

Really this comes down to three questions:

  • How effective is our communication in the organisation? 
  • How are we elevating the mindset of our managers so they understand the importance of their roles?
  • What are we doing to develop our middle managers into effective middle leaders? 

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Communication

I often see things trip up because senior leaders assume that middle managers can operate with minimal information.

But just because someone is a manager doesn’t mean they automatically know what’s going on in your head. You still need to think about communication and how to bring your middle managers along on the journey. You need to invest time so they understand exactly where the organisation is headed. 

  • Discussion If you’re a senior manager involved in a strategy planning session for the next 12 months, your immediate next step should be to sit down with your middle managers. Spend a couple of hours taking them through the journey of how you arrived at your strategy.
  • Context The strategy is decided, but your discussions with middle managers are more about explaining the context behind why you’ve settled on a particular strategy for the business. Why you have you chosen these priorities and how they interact across the different departments.
  • Feedback It’s also a good chance for the middle manager to give feedback and suggest ideas on how to implement the strategies. 
  • Role An important part of the discussion should be around the middle manger’s role in how they embed the strategy within their teams.

If you’re only having a 15-minute toolbox-talk-type discussion about your organisational strategy with your middle managers, it’s not going to be enough to achieve all of this.

Mindset

Middle managers need to recognise their importance in the organisation. They may not be senior leaders, but they are still leaders and have a very important role to play. It’s important to elevate people so they understand that they’re not just individual contributors anymore. 

They may not be senior leaders, but they are still leaders and have a very important role to play.’

Some of this can be achieved through communication, but part of it is going to come through ongoing training and development. If you don’t have a management or a leadership programme in place, make this a priority for the next year. It doesn’t need to be expensive, or involve a lot of time out of the office. It can be tailored to suit the way your organisation works. For example, some of the leadership development programs we’ve used include:

  • one two-hour session every six to eight weeks
  • half a day every two months
  • alternating timeframes: one day in the first month, half a day in the second month, one day in the third month, etc. 

You can start to structure the training to suit your leadership group and your management teams. But if you’re not doing anything, it is really difficult to achieve the right mindset in your management group. They’re just not going to see themselves as leaders in your organisation. 

This can have serious consequences, like the research from Indeed showed. It can lead to burnout, because middle managers often feel like they’re the ones doing all the work and the senior leaders are just ‘sitting around’. Of course, we know that’s not the case, but you can understand how people can feel this way. So that mindset piece is really important. 

Development

Apart from organisational development, you should also be encouraging people to develop individually. I like to encourage people to do one thing per month. And that one thing could be:

  • listening to a podcast episode
  • reading an article
  • going to a networking group. 

The one thing doesn’t need to be formal learning, it’s more about encouraging people to get out of the office, either figuratively or literally, to broaden their minds. Great benefits flow from understanding what’s going on in the industry and the economy – locally and internationally. If the middle management group isn’t connected outside your organisation, they’re not going to bring new ideas into it. 

If you’re not investing in your own individual development, it’s easy to get that feeling that you’re doing 130%. Research shows that when we take the time, and it doesn’t have to be a lot of time, to develop ourselves we’re better able to synthesise information, come up with new ideas and we become more efficient. 

I’d love you to consider what you can do this year to support your middle managers. Get some feedback from them too, to find out what would make a real difference in their world over the next 12 months. 

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