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7 steps to overcoming middle manager burnout

By Doug Dennerline
April 17, 2023
7 minute read

You are probably familiar with the basic safety instructions offered by airline attendants at the beginning of every flight: If the airplane loses cabin pressure, oxygen masks drop. Parents are instructed to put their masks on first so they can maintain consciousness, then help their child put on their mask. Similarly, if you want employees to thrive, your managers first need to get the survival resources they need to avoid manager burnout and better assist their reports.

The reason is simple: employees are more likely to leave their jobs if they’re having issues with their manager. They may feel overworked, undervalued, minimized, dismissed, or ignored because their manager is not an effective leader.

The global leadership consulting firm DDI reported that 57% of employees have left a job because of their manager. While that number implies that these are simply “bad managers,” it’s likely that a significant number don’t have the organizational support they need to succeed. The Workforce Institute at UKG recently found that 46% of middle managers will likely quit their jobs within the next 12 months because of work-related stress. Worse, according to Red Thread Research, there’s been a “marked decline” in organizational support for managers, including a lack of clarity, lack of data-based insights, and lack of coaching support.

Managers are trying to balance too many demands

If you’re not taking care of your managers, your entire business is headed off a cliff because effective managers are the linchpins of a finely tuned organization. In a perfect world, they:

  • Translate business strategy to department and organizational goals
  • Remove barriers to work productivity
  • Provide guidance to enable better performance
  • Coach employees for career growth and development
  • Relate to their employees on a personal level 
  • Care about their employees’ well-being

However, the world is not perfect. Employee stress levels are at an all-time high due to rapidly changing macroeconomic circumstances that affect their daily lives. That means managers must function as both counselors and managers. In fact, many managers’ roles have changed dramatically with hybrid and remote work, which comes with its own set of managerial challenges.

The result is that managers are overwhelmed, leading to burnout. Worse, they and their employers don’t know how to deal with burnout as a manager.

Being a manager doesn’t come naturally

In a recent Betterworks webinar, HR researcher and analyst Josh Bersin noted that “every company will have challenges in developing managers because most people who become managers don’t realize that it isn’t a new job. It’s a totally different type of job than being an individual contributor. 

“Most companies have to come to grips with the issue that becoming a manager is not a gift or privilege. It is a responsibility because all of a sudden, you’re responsible for the performance, success, and growth of a whole bunch of people, not just yourself. …You have to learn your style. You have to come to grips with who you are as a person and what kind of a leader you want to be. It’s a journey of self-awareness.”

Remote and hybrid work challenge manager effectiveness

This is a journey that companies should help their managers embark on successfully, especially given the sea change of the past few years. During the pandemic, the challenge was keeping employees engaged and connected in a meaningful and productive way. Now, many organizations grapple with hybrid work scenarios, and this changes the way managers engage with employees. 

There is more pressure on managers these days and not the right kind of support. RedThread Research reported that in 2022, 53% or fewer managers knew how to manage difficult conversations, foster connections with their team, and remove barriers to work getting done. In addition, only 38% of managers felt their organization provided clarity on what they need to do to succeed in the future — a 10-point drop from the previous year. 

Red Thread has also noted that among the three ‘Cs’ of driving performance — culture, capability of managers, and clarity — manager capability would rise in importance due to hybrid and remote work.

How to turn managers into real-life superheroes

In our forthcoming book, Make Work Better: Revolutionizing How Great Bosses Lead, Give Feedback, and Empower Employees, we describe the many HR challenges organizations face and how to address them. Following are seven suggestions, including excerpts from the book, for minimizing manager burnout:

1. Help managers communicate corporate business objectives and translate them into tangible goals for their teams

Managers should empower employees to establish and align their goals with the team’s and the company’s needs. Employees will feel a sense of achievement and success from doing meaningful work. In turn, this will drive engagement, higher discretionary effort, and productivity.

2. Turn your managers into coaches through conversations

The manager’s role is to provide guidance, teach employees how to problem solve, remove roadblocks that prevent work from getting done, provide feedback, and coach employees for growth and career advancement. Each employee’s needs will vary, so the framework for conversations must be flexible.

“Purpose-driven” and impactful discussions between managers and their direct reports drive better results. This kind of trust-building and open, honest communication with managers is essential. 

Gallup found that employees crave authentic relationships with their managers. They want to be able to talk about work and life and connect on a human-to-human level. With collective visibility into employees’ goals, progress, feedback, and engagement, managers and employees have a holistic view of all the information needed for valuable and productive conversations. The result: higher trust and stronger relationships promote alignment and unlock opportunities. 

Frequency and structure also matter. Frequency builds trust and authenticity. Documentation will also provide the data that managers and the organization need to evaluate performance, uncover areas for improvement, and dramatically reduce bias. HR leaders can use data and insights to help managers understand the complete employee picture and make concerted efforts to reduce bias and build trust.

“The manager’s role is to provide guidance, teach employees how to problem solve, remove roadblocks that prevent work from getting done, provide feedback, and coach employees for growth and career advancement.”

3. Help managers have difficult conversations

In Make Work Better, we speak of “radical transparency,” but that also implies a call for “radical candor” — the ability to have difficult conversations, privately and publicly. We’ve found that when managers and employees are unable to have honest conversations with each other, the result is unhappy employees. 

Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce 2022 report backs this up. When employees receive false praise and encouragement and are not given the tools they need to achieve their goals continuously throughout the year, or their goals are not aligned with the company’s goals, they feel they are being set up to fail. And, indeed, they often do fail. Those costs can start adding up quickly, but the real costs aren’t just monetary. They can be devastating to an organization.

4. Give managers the tools they need to be successful

Forthcoming research from Betterworks shows that managers, especially first-time managers, want and need to be better equipped to coach their employees for growth and development but feel they do not have the right organizational support or tools to do so. It’s vital for organizations to help managers develop coaching skills and to provide resources to help these leaders be successful.

In Make Work Better, we note that managers want frameworks, practical tools, and guidance so they can be effective team leaders, especially with the complexities of hybrid and remote work. A performance enablement solution helps managers, teams and individual contributors communicate more effectively, stay on track, maintain the culture, and support and cheer each other on. This means that conversations, constructive feedback, guidance, connections, and alignment and realignment must happen in the flow of work— in the applications people use every day.

“A modern performance enablement solution can help reduce managerial stress by empowering first-line managers, their supervisors, and employees. It allows managers to move away from the outdated concepts of hierarchy and control, instead adopting a framework that places employees’ needs at the center.” 

5. Empower managers to have better conversations to keep employees connected to purpose

Meaningful conversations are critical to employee engagement, but they have become a real challenge for many organizations. People don’t always understand their roles or how they fit in the business, and it’s leading to disengagement. 

Gallup’s global workforce report revealed that 85% of workers report being disengaged at work, and they have estimated that disengagement globally costs the economy $7.8 trillion. Depending on the study you read, 60-70% of employees do not know their company’s goals. If employees don’t understand the business objectives, how can they possibly be successful? Without transparency between managers and employees, it’s impossible for employees to understand their role in achieving the company’s goals.

6. Equip managers to focus on less seasoned and newer employees through conversations

Organizations tend to overlook individuals who are two to three years into their career. They don’t invest in these employees because they’re not in the top 20% of producers. Often these junior employees leave, which negatively impacts return on investment (ROI). For example, if an employee moves on during the first 18 months, your organization is already operating at a loss for that one employee, and it will cost you 1.5 times the person’s salary, on average, to be replaced, not to mention the loss of time.

7. Make your managers performance enablers, not performance managers

Ditch the backward-looking annual and semi-annual performance reviews for lightweight and more frequent conversations in the flow of work that help employees continuously improve. Infrequent feedback is not meaningful. Frequent and honest feedback is affirming and motivating. The Gallup State of the Workforce report found that when managers provide continuous versus only annual feedback, team members are:

  • 5.2 times more likely to strongly agree that they receive meaningful feedback
  • 3.2 times more likely to strongly agree they are motivated to do outstanding work
  • 2.7 times more likely to be engaged at work

Performance enablement reduces managerial stress

A modern performance enablement solution can help reduce managerial stress by empowering first-line managers, their supervisors, and employees. It allows managers to move away from the outdated concepts of hierarchy and control, instead adopting a framework that places employees’ needs at the center. 

A performance enablement solution gives employees the opportunity to create meaningful developmental and performance goals that align with their company’s strategic goals and equips managers to frequently coach and enable employees, rather than dictate and evaluate from the old command-and-control management style that just doesn’t work in the modern world.

Moreover, a performance enablement solution enables companies to contribute to a positive work culture. And, it’s the only way to personalize career growth effectively and at scale.

Bottom line

When managers are the weakest link in the organizational chain, it’s because they’re not enabled properly by their organizations or the people to whom they report. By providing continuous employee-manager coaching and collaboration through a modern performance management solution, HR departments can make their organizations a better place to work for everyone. 

Doug Dennerline is the CEO of Betterworks and co-author of Make Work Better, written in conjunction with Betterworks VP of HR Transformation, Jamie Aitken. Doug currently serves or has previously served on the Board of Directors of several companies including Aktana, Benefitfocus, VBrick Systems, and SugarCRM.

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