Leadership   //   January 3, 2024

What middle managers need to lead winning teams in 2024

Middle managers are struggling. 

While it’s been an ongoing issue in the workplace for some time, middle managers were really brought to their boiling point last year. In the words of Emily Field, partner at McKinsey & Company: “There has been this widespread view that 2023 was supposed to be the year of the manager. Where have we been? 2024 has to be the year where we make it happen.”

These folks have to get things done on their own checklist while also managing and mentoring subordinates – all at the same time as feeling pressure from the top. Middle managers rise to the challenge though of keeping employees informed and engaged, but they’re often facing an uphill battle.

And many surveys have painted this picture. Zeno Group’s recent study, “Middle Managers at Risk: Companies Overlook the Communications Imperative” found that nearly nine in 10 middle managers believe that clear and timely communication is vital to their success. However, only 54% of managers say senior leadership is effective in meeting this need. And Culture Amp’s new research on the state of the manager found that when an employee has a great manager, one whom they see as a role model, they score 27% higher on motivation.

“Managers, particularly now, are the strongest tether that an employee has to their organization,” said Fresia Jackson, lead research people scientist at Culture Amp. 

Research from McKinsey & Company shows that having more top-performing middle managers leads to much better financial outcomes. But it’s been a hard spot to get to. The findings show that managers not only are not spending their time in the areas they should but also are facing multiple obstacles to managing talent effectively. Just 20% of surveyed managers strongly agree that their organizations help them be successful people managers. A much larger group of respondents (42%) either disagree or are unsure that their organizations set them up to be successful people managers.

Recentering the responsibilities of middle managers

One of the common gaps for middle managers is delivering on their responsibilities in their role as a manager. When there is so much work to be done, and that manager has their own laundry list of things to do, it’s easy to put actually managing employees on the back burner. It’s a slippery slope and a dangerous one too that can impact the whole organization.

That’s why in 2024 experts say it’s crucial to really set in stone what middle management should prioritize and reframe what their responsibilities are.

Culture Amp’s study found that the more seniority a manager has, the less likely they are to set goals with their employees, provide continuous feedback, have one on ones, and create development plans. 

“What we’re seeing is that when you look at it 360, managers are getting very mixed messages about what their manager is telling them to focus on,” said Jackson. “They’re saying to focus on leadership things like strategy, influence – things they think are going to move the needle and what they’re telling their managers they need to do to be promoted and advance.”

“What we’re seeing is that when you look at it 360, managers are getting very mixed messages about what their manager is telling them to focus on.”
Fresia Jackson, lead research people scientist at Culture Amp.

But that mindset, which leaves behind the employee experience, can quickly lead to unengaged and upset employees. And as the saying goes: people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. 

“Your job is to have one on ones with your direct reports,” said Jackson. “If you’re doing it right, it can make everything else easier.”

McKinsey & Company’s research also found that a lot of it comes down to organizational bureaucracy. 

“Middle managers don’t have the time and resources to focus on people management,” said Field. “They’re spending a day a week on administrative tasks and a day and a half a week on individual contributor tasks. A quarter of their time is on strategy and execution. There is still a lot of admin and reporting to do. They got measured on “did they deliver,” and that’s at the expense of the people leadership side.”

Understanding the stresses middle managers face

In 2023, layoffs were one of the biggest challenges middle managers had to navigate. Sure, the executive leadership team decided who to lay off, but middle managers had to deal with the fallout. That means either telling someone they were laid off or explaining to a team why layoffs are happening. 

“They’re dealing with strong economic headwinds and layoffs,” said Lorna Borenstein, corporate wellness expert and CEO of corporate well-being company Grokker. “How do you manage the team before, during and after layoffs? Including employee morale. How do you get people to believe you care about them when corporate actions would suggest otherwise? There is some cognitive dissonance and that falls on the manager to deal with that.”

Beyond that though, Jackson says one thing she saw frequently is that layoffs removed an entire level of employees. That’s led to managers having way more direct reports because of that flattening. In 2024, this change needs to be recognized by all parts of the company to understand how to move forward.

The Culture Amp study found that the employee experience declines for those who have managers with increasing direct reports. Employees said they were stressed or burnt out twice as much when they had managers who had more than nine direct reports. 

That’s where upper management needs to step in next year. 

“You would think that companies are trying to support those managers who have the most direct reports, but they’re actually getting the least support from their manager,” said Jackson. “They’re the least likely to have had a one on one, gotten feedback. It feels like a vicious cycle and that the people who are supporting the most people are the least likely to be supported themselves.”

She suggests looking and seeing what the distribution is of direct reports across your managers and seeing how it shows up in experience data. Do your own research internally with engagement surveys, adding a section for how your managers are feeling. 

A focus on work-life balance for middle managers

Work-life balance is hard for most people to get right, but it’s even harder when you get to middle management. In fact, McKinsey & Company’s research found that they’re the most burnt out of any level. In 2024, these managers, with the help from top executives, need to be given the proper opportunities to adjust their work-life balance, which in turn benefits the entire organization. 

“They’re experiencing significant cutting, the great resignation, quiet quitting, employee well-being, hybrid and coming back to the office,” said Field. “That’s all while dealing with their own personal family situations as well. They’ve got a meteor shower of external events happening, and they’re being asked to do more with less.”

"They’ve got a meteor shower of external events happening, and they’re being asked to do more with less.”
Emily Field, partner at McKinsey.

Donnebra McClendon, global head of DEI at human resource company Ceridian, agrees. “Under-appreciation and the burnout is real,” she said. “Oftentimes, they are the first people to be designated more work. And they have to keep their people engaged, but also have to meet their own individual metrics to show they’re demonstrating value in the organization. Their work is often unseen, but much needed in the organization, which makes them feel undervalued.”

That’s why recognition is also so important. It’s something that middle managers know they need to give to their employees, but they don’t always receive much back from the people above them. And that recognition can be done in simple ways that have a far-reaching impact, stressed McClendon.

Managers are getting overloaded with tasks and they’re still dealing with changes that happened in the workplace since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Managers really bore the brunt of it [Covid-19-related work changes],” said Brad Smith, chief science officer at meQuilibrium. “They took on new jobs, worked more hours. We saw the impact of that in terms of manager well-being over time. They were more likely to be burned out and show signs of mental health issues. They really struggled through all those changes. It’s been over three years of solid ambiguity.”

And dealing with that change was only really the tip of the iceberg.: “The rate of change we face right now has never been faster than it is, and it will never be as slow as it is right now again,” said Smith. “You have generative AI hitting the fan, and all of a sudden it’s really easy to see what the next disruption will look like.”

How AI can help (or hurt) managers

The next challenge managers face: rapidly evolving AI and its place at work. Next year, managers will need to figure out the best way for them to use it themselves, and how they should respond to employees’ questions about the best ways to use AI in their roles.

That means asking how technology can be used as a benefit and what is worth automating. Field describes it as a “tremendous solution” for middle managers, especially if you look at AI as being able to recommend the best next step. That could look like using it to draft a job description, streamline workflows, draft emails, and so on. 

“It can get us to maybe 70% or 80%,” said Field. “It can cut the time needed to do these tasks because we have a first draft.”

All of this then frees up the manager to refocus on the people they are managing. “It can also be helpful for managers to prioritize their time, flag their to-dos and next steps,” said Field. “It helps get things done for those that choose to invest in AI technologies. But it has to come down to the fact that organizations have to really understand that the manager’s most critical role is being that people leader.”