Minding the Middle Managers

Leaders increasingly worry they might lose entire swaths of skill and organizational awareness if this oft-ignored but stressed-out group heads for the exits.

A firm’s top executives always get attention. Ditto its top talent, entry-level and otherwise. But middle managers, the men and women responsible for keeping both of those groups happy? They’re often afterthoughts.

That might change in 2023, as leaders across industries believe they could face a mass exodus of midlevel managers fleeing responsibilities that have only compounded since the pandemic. Kristi Drew, Korn Ferry’s global account leader for financial services, has at least three clients spending significant time and money to improve their midlevel managers’ skills, morale, and opportunities. “They are investing where they haven’t—not in the vice presidents, not in the directors, but in the middle managers,” says Drew.

The evidence of a problem is largely anecdotal for now, but Korn Ferry experts say that clients spanning technology, professional services, healthcare, and other industries are all worried. This has prompted a range of responses. “Some firms are being passive, some are being aggressive, but they’re all asking whether their midlevel people have everything they need,” says David Vied, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

Once a prized position, middle management is now one of the most stressed employee groups. A vast survey conducted by Columbia University in 2015 found that 18% of managers and supervisors reported symptoms of depression, while only 12% of frontline workers and 11% of owners did. A separate 2014 study found that managers’ job satisfaction ranks in the bottom 5%. More recently, a survey over the summer from Gartner indicated that about one-quarter of midlevel leaders “feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities,” and that a similar percentage “don’t feel mentally engaged at work.”

Experts say that all of this is a consequence of top-level leaders feeling that they’ve had no choice. During the pandemic, it was middle managers who were tasked with keeping productivity up while everyone worked remotely. Subsequently, midlevel managers were overwhelmed trying to replace employees who left during the Great Resignation; the fewer jobs they succeeded in filling, the more slack they themselves had to pick up. Now, experts say, firms that have been forced to consider layoffs in this tough economy are targeting this very same group.

Even if they keep their jobs, middle managers have borne the brunt of the turmoil caused by hybrid scheduling, according to a new study from Gallup. At some organizations, managers may be asked to implement return-to-office policies that their employees don’t necessarily agree with. At other companies, top leaders have told employees concerned about their in-office schedules to “work it out with your manager.” These challenges, along with managers’ usual day-to-day activities, have been made even more difficult, experts say, by hybrid environments and the lack of consistent face-to-face interactions.

Experts say that improving the situation for midlevel managers will involve more than just bumping up their pay. Giving them mentors and leadership-development training is a start. Leaders can also free up more of their midlevel managers’ time by investing in technology that handles administrative tasks such as data analysis or workflow approvals. Drew says some of her clients are trying to give managers new work experiences to create new career challenges. “Too many managers have been growing only in their own silos,” she says.