Stuck in the Middle

Why the tough job of the middle manager is getting even harder every day

When you ask senior executives about the toughest job in their organization, many will quickly admit, “It’s our middle managers. They are the glue that holds this whole place together.”

Executives’ sense of the importance of frontline leaders is backed up by research and explains growing interest in management development training. Gallup studies tell us that 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement is explained by one thing: the manager an employee reports to. No other factor comes close.

For today’s frontline leaders, the challenge is not just that their job is hard; it’s that it’s getting even harder every day.

This post is the first in our series “Stuck in the Middle.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore ways that organizations can better support their dedicated but stressed-out frontline leaders. Management development training, more than ever, is essential to reengaging staff and stabilizing the workforce.

From our work in leading healthcare organizations, following are 10 ways we see the middle manager’s job getting more difficult in today’s workforce environment.

1. More time in the staffing count

With staff shortages and problems recruiting for open positions, some managers believe the only solution is to jump in and take more assignments. Some organizations have even mandated this practice. While staff appreciate their manager’s willingness to help, they also tell us that they aren’t as available to help solve problems and be a true leader. Unfortunately, the short-term fix often exacerbates long-term issues.

2. Too much paperwork crowds out time for “people” work

Managers understand the need to track key performance indicators (KPIs) and report on results. But some are frustrated that tracking down data and completing reports feels as if it has become an end, rather than the means to improve results.

3. Changing attitudes of frontline staff

In today’s labor market, frontline employees know that the power has shifted from management to them. In this environment, if they don’t feel supported, recognized, and heard, they simply resign. Finding another job is much easier than in the past.

4. Perceived mixed messages on turnover

As turnover has skyrocketed and organizations struggle to stabilize their workforce, managers report feeling increasing pressure to keep average performers — even when they know intellectually that it hurts the team’s work culture.

5. Struggles with holding staff accountable

Closely related to the problem of turnover is anxiety over holding staff accountable. Some frontline leaders fear that if they counsel employees, they’ll disengage or resign.

6. Increased burden of managing staff who work from home

While most companies have accepted the reality that remote work is likely here to stay, they have not focused on what this shift means for frontline leaders. Leading and supporting remote workers requires a more disciplined — and in many cases more time-consuming – leadership approach.

7. Diminished financial incentives to take on management responsibilities

With upward pressure on wages, many organizations are seeing compression between managers’ and frontline staff pay. For hourly workers, the opportunity to pick up more overtime and take additional shifts in other companies sometimes means they are making more than their managers, who are working just as many hours without compensation upside.

8. Lack of appreciation cascades through the organization

Research is beginning to show that executives are just as burned out as employees who work below them. A leader at any level who feels underappreciated is less likely to express gratitude to those who work for them. A culture of underappreciation is especially degrading for frontline leaders.

9. Out-of-control spans of control

While there’s no magic number for ideal span of control, no literature or research finds having more than 20 people reporting to leader is a good idea. But that happens in many organizations, especially as financial pressures to reduce costs increase.

10. No time to learn to be a great leader

Moving from star individual performer to effective leader of people is one of life’s biggest, most difficult career transitions. Simply, it takes time, a high degree of self-awareness, and management development training from one’s organization to learn to be a strong leader. Unfortunately, leaders today are in the middle of a nationwide workforce crisis without the luxury of time to grow into their challenging new roles.

In our next post, we’ll explore effective strategies for better supporting and developing leaders given today’s new workforce realities.