Employee morale isn’t great these days. Job satisfaction is low. Burnout rates are high. Workers are feeling overwhelmed and undervalued. But if you look closely, it’s not the lowest-ranking employees reporting the greatest levels of stress and anxiety. Nor is it the leaders tasked with running companies during an unprecedented period of workplace transformation. It’s the poor souls stuck in the middle.
These middle managers—the butt of the joke in so many office comedies for their outsize ambition, assumed mediocrity, or embrace of the status quo—actually play a crucial role in most workplaces. They get stuff done. They motivate others to get stuff done. They provide the vital link between the C-suite and the rest of the company—two groups that often have vastly different desires and motivations.
Serving as this go-between has become harder recently, as the strategic priorities of executives diverge even further from the needs of their workers. Two-plus years into the pandemic, with a recession on the horizon, many corporate leaders want employees back in the office (at least part time), believing that this workplace cohesion will help them better navigate an uncertain economy and lingering supply chain issues, on top of the regular pressures of increasing the bottom line. Employees, for their part, want flexibility, career development, meaningful work, and a supportive corporate culture. When these priorities clash, it’s these managers who are stuck doing the, well, managing.
The results of a recent study conducted by human resources company Humu illustrate the bind. The majority of HR leaders said that managers should be focused on “facilitating transformation, improving team agility, and leading a high-performing team.” Managers, however, reported much more practical (and immediate) concerns: “helping teams combat burnout, retaining top talent, and hiring and onboarding.” Managers are “getting crushed,” says Liz Fosslien, head of communications and content at Humu. Is it any wonder that her organization found that managers are twice as likely to be looking for new jobs as nonmanagerial employees?
The fact that managers are increasingly endangered—in large part because the world they inhabit has changed so dramatically—should be cause for alarm. There’s a reason for the old adage that people quit managers, not companies. If even the best managers are struggling, where does that leave everyone else?
Sandwich Generation: Showrunners love to hate middle management. But behind these exaggerated characters, there are some essential truths. Here, a brief catalog of managers in pop culture.
The great remote work experiment that office workers embarked upon in March 2020 has, by and large, been a success. In the summer of 2020, 94% of the nearly 800 employers surveyed by HR consulting firm Mercer reported that productivity rates had stayed the same or improved since employees had started working remotely. More recent studies suggest that employee productivity at home is even higher as people have adjusted to remote practices and procedures. It’s unsurprising, then, that many aren’t eager to return to their commutes, distracting coworkers, and $14 sad desk salads.
Many leaders, however, feel differently. They have resorted to bribing, cajoling, or—in the case of Elon Musk—threatening to fire employees who resist returning to the office full time. Musk is not alone: Employees generally say they want more flexibility, but an April 2022 survey from employee screening company GoodHire suggests that 80% of senior-level managers think that there should be “severe consequences,” including pay cuts and termination, for employees who don’t want to return to the office.
That puts managers in the awkward position of trying to implement unpopular policies while they are also overseeing complex working arrangements. Some companies have enacted full return-to-office plans, or waffled back and forth, as COVID-19 surges waxed and waned. Plenty have gone hybrid. (And, yes, a few have made the shift to fully remote and asynchronous.) Each arrangement presents unique challenges for managers, including communicating and enforcing new expectations, and—especially in the case of full-time return-to-office plans—navigating employee pushback and subsequent departures.
Some managers are responding by simply throwing in the towel. When Apple announced plans this past spring to compel workers to clock in to its Cupertino headquarters at least three days a week, a group of employees published an open letter protesting the demand. Soon after, the company’s then director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, quit, reportedly telling his team that “more flexibility would have been the best policy” for them. After Goodfellow accepted a job at Google, Apple walked back its in-person strategy.
It also doesn’t help that managers operating in these hybrid environments often don’t have the proper training to evaluate employees’ performance, says Brian Elliott, a senior VP at Slack who is also executive leader of Future Forum, a future-of-work think tank launched by the Salesforce-owned workplace messaging platform. Managers have traditionally been taught to measure someone’s hours spent on a task, rather than outcomes, which are the essential metric in a remote, digital-first environment.
Even as managers struggle to find their footing in these new workplaces, they’ve been saddled with yet another responsibility: shaping corporate culture. Yet how do you do that when anyone with experience at the company keeps leaving? More than 47 million people quit in 2021 versus just over 42 million in 2019. It’s a trend that some experts say could continue even with a cooling economy.
The root of many of these resignations is obvious: burnout and insufficient pay, often combined with lack of childcare. A growing sense of moral injury—the emotional response that occurs when someone’s ethical code is violated—is also a culprit, says Ludmila Praslova, an organizational psychology professor at Vanguard University of Southern California. That could take the form of a leader holding up an ideal in public (like making a companywide commitment to mental health), but then acting in a way that violates this same ideal (requiring employees to consistently work late nights and weekends). This dissonance can cause employees to feel disillusioned with leaders and even entire companies. A perfect recipe for moral injury: when Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong responded to an employee petition in June that was critical of the company by brusquely tweeting that the authors should just “quit” and stop distracting the team.
There are ample opportunities for disillusionment these days. In the wake of the pandemic’s onset and recent social justice movements, employees simply expect more from their workplaces. Studies show that mental health benefits are becoming de rigueur for retaining talent, as are policies that support workers’ sense of well-being, along with workplace diversity and inclusion. But such initiatives are only effective if leadership genuinely embraces them—and provides adequate training for middle management. Instead, managers are often left to their own devices to do this sort of work, which requires strong emotional intelligence and relationship-building skills. Just as important, they need their companies to have a clear code of conduct, along with a system of consequences for violating it, says Kim Scott, cofounder of equity and inclusion consultancy Just Work. They also need a “decision matrix” in place before issues arise that affect employees and necessitate a response from leaders, says Just Work CEO Trier Bryant. Otherwise, the stress falls on middle managers.
As if they need any more of it. The waves of recent resignations have only heightened the pressure on managers, who are expected to keep current employees happy and engaged while simultaneously bringing on new talent. Unchecked, this can result in a downward spiral, where understaffed teams become more overworked, leading to more burnout and resignations. “There’s a greater realization of the challenges that we’ve put on middle managers,” says Slack’s Elliott. “The hope is that we all start thinking about the value of investing behind them.”
In a worsening economy, managers will likely see their role shift again—and not for the better. Sure, direct reports might be less prone to jump ship and easier to coax back into a physical office. But a more docile workforce doesn’t mean a happier or more productive one. Disgruntled employees may be good for television, but not corporate America.