How to help managers lead

Much has been written about how pandemic-driven workplace shifts have impacted employees and the executives trying to keep up, but midlevel managers are the forgotten cohort caught in the messy middle between the two.

Humu’s 2022 State of the Manager report found that managers’ jobs are 10 times harder than they were before COVID. On top of their own workloads and the day-to-day responsibilities of developing and directing their people, managers have had to learn to rally remote and hybrid teams, mitigate employee attrition, and drive culture-building initiatives. As pressure grows, more managers are eyeing the door. Our data show they are twice as likely as individual contributors to be looking for a new job.

When considering evolving employee needs, it’s easy to forget that managers are direct reports themselves, and that they typically face many of the same issues as individual contributors.

To head off a mass exodus of midlevel management—which would spell disaster for companies and the broader economy—leaders should encourage managers to take these five proven steps to invest in their own well-being.

Practice what you preach

Nearly half (44%) of US managers rank combating team burnout and balancing workloads as among their top three priorities. And while there is no shortage of tips for managers to create space for their direct reports to step away and decompress when they are feeling overwhelmed, many managers struggle to live by their own advice.

Research shows that manager burnout is climbing. In 2020, 71% of managers experienced burnout at least once. Over the past year, that number jumped to nearly 90%.

Managers need to be more vigilant about protecting their mental well-being. Instead of taking “Pretend Time Off,” where they continue to chime in on email or Slack threads while purportedly on vacation, managers should regularly take sick leave and vacation—and make it clear that they won’t be available while away. Setting and enforcing boundaries around your time will show direct reports the company is serious about work-life balance, and make them more likely to truly unplug when they take time off themselves.

Adopt the mantra, “I am a person learning to . . .”

People promoted into management due to their success as individual contributors may find themselves struggling to lead and develop others, but unsure of how to ask for help without looking like they are not suited to the new role.

To address these anxieties, managers should solicit feedback from their direct reports often, both via informal conversations and more structured performance reviews. By adopting the mantra “I am a person learning to ____,” managers can shift toward a growth mindset that allows them to view feedback as an opportunity to improve rather than a condemnation of their leadership abilities.

This mindset is also a helpful tool as teams transition back to the office. The change will be novel for everyone, so managers should give themselves the same grace they would extend to their people. After all, no one will (or should expect themselves to) have everything figured out on day one.

Ask for help when you need it

When managers fail to seek support, leaders remain unaware their lieutenants are struggling, and direct reports are left stuck with a manager who isn’t meeting their needs.

Good managers are the crucial first line of defense in the battle for talent, and bad managers are an accelerator for people considering jumping ship. People who feel their managers offer them growth opportunities are 7.9x more likely to stay at their organization while employees who feel they lack clear goals to work towards are 6.3x more likely to start looking for a new role. Additionally, 52% of existing employees state that their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job.

Managers cannot be afraid to be upfront with executive leaders about their own areas of development. They should make it a point to connect with senior leaders about feedback and team development strategies, and be vocal about requesting additional structured training if needed.

Stay close to HR leaders

Our manager survey exposed a lack of alignment between HR leaders and managers. While HR leaders want managers to facilitate transformational change, improve team agility, and develop high-performing teams, managers first need help with the basics. Managers told us that helping teams combat burnout, retaining top talent, and hiring and onboarding are their biggest challenges.

This disconnect presents an opportunity for managers to help HR teams better understand their most pressing people management challenges. While HR pros don’t always have visibility into the inner workings of every manager’s or team’s specific responsibilities, they will be able to provide high-level support via training, new initiatives, and policies, and answer manager questions as they arise.

Both new (47%) and experienced (45%) managers listed recruiting, hiring, and onboarding as top challenges. These areas are a natural place to start with building a stronger relationship between HR and middle management. Managers can call attention to the challenge of bringing on new team members, particularly in a remote or hybrid environment. They should work directly with HR to craft job descriptions and develop an onboarding plan that accounts for everything new employees need to get up and running in the first 90 days.

Look back at how far you’ve come

When you’re not together in-person as often, it can be easy to jump from one virtual meeting to the next without taking the time to celebrate shared achievements. These leaves managers and teams feeling ineffective and overwhelmed—and means they miss out on chances to connect and catch their breath.

When it comes to recognition, a little can go a long way. Managers should be intentional about recognizing their own efforts and those of their teams. They can let leaders know how they and their teams prefer to be recognized, whether that’s in one-on-one meetings, a company kudos channel, or at a monthly all hands meeting. Celebrations can focus on both small wins, like suggesting a new process that makes the team’s lives easier, and big wins, like nailing a major client presentation.

Managers are the backbone of any organization. With more responsibility on their plates than ever, it’s crucial for them to both ask for and receive the support they need, without the fear of being seen as incapable. This requires managers to lean into their own discomfort, direct reports to understand their managers are people too, and leaders to be more hands-on in coaching the coaches.

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