4 Ways to Help Middle Managers Thrive

Do kids still play monkey in the middle? You stand between two buddies while they toss a ball back and forth over your head. If you manage to intercept and catch the ball, the person who tossed the ball takes your place as the monkey. Catching the ball, however, is difficult to achieve because the ball is almost always too high for you to reach. 

The game is a good metaphor for the position in which many middle managers find themselves—caught in the middle between upper management and their direct reports. It can be a thankless and frustrating job. In fact, according to a survey of 15,725 employees by leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, when it comes to job satisfaction, such managers fall in the bottom 5 percent. 

What should senior leaders do to ensure their middle managers are satisfied, engaged, and performing at their peak? Here are four actions to take:

Give them line of sight to the big picture

All employees need to understand your organization’s vision, purpose, and goals and it is particularly critical for your middle managers because they are the primary link driving that messaging to your frontline workers. Middle managers must have a deep understanding of company direction and how they play a role in achieving such objectives, so it is important to involve them early in the process and get their input. They can provide valuable insight not only into employee perspectives but also your customers’ concerns and needs. One approach I recommend to clients is to regularly invite middle managers to sit in on senior leadership discussions and meetings. Additionally, I recommend providing them with talking points and presentation content for when they share this information with their teams. Such a hands-on approach will increase their understanding of the business and confidence in their own ability to communicate the big picture.

Make ongoing investments in onboarding and developing managers

Middle managers represent an opportunity for investment that too many organizations ignore. Identify the key competencies your organization needs to be successful and build your development strategy to align with them. Blend formal training with on-the-job experience along with formal and informal coaching and mentoring. Consider their development in three phases: before they are promoted, during their first year in their new role, and ongoing management and leadership training. 

Most organizations promote strong individual contributors to management positions without any preparation. The fact is that people who excel at their technical roles do not often translate into good managers or leaders without training, as few have a clear idea of the role and responsibilities of a manager. One of my clients does an excellent job preparing people they have identified as potential managers (or those who have expressed interest in management) by running a series of training sessions focused on effective management. The training exposes them to the ins and outs of management and the fundamental skills required. Job shadowing—where an employee spends several days working with and observing a manager—is a practical and meaningful way to gain this insight. 

Start with a strong onboarding process for newly promoted managers. They will benefit from being assigned a mentor, often a more senior manager who can be their go-to support person. Such a mentor should not be their direct boss, but rather someone who can provide a safe, neutral perspective on how to make the shift from individual contributor to leader of others. Create a new manager bootcamp consisting of a series of “mini-workshops” covering basic management topics such as delegation, giving feedback, goal setting, interviewing skills, and so on. Typically, the bootcamp a program consists of three to four hours once or twice a month for six to nine months. Not only does this create a safe place for new managers to practice skills and ask questions, but it also allows them to connect with peers from around the company. 

Continue their development with more advanced leadership workshops on in-depth skill development in the competencies you’ve identified as mission critical. Be sure to link this formal training to on-the-job experiences. Use assessments including 360s to measure their progress and to identify individual and group performance and skill gaps. Challenge them by asking them to lead organizational projects as part of their development, providing support with ongoing coaching and mentoring. 

Don’t neglect their business knowledge. Other common training needs include business analytical skills, planning, and project management.

Recognize their development achievements

Examine your manager recognition programs. Do you have formal ways to specifically recognize your developing managers as well as your manager super stars? Celebrate the completion of bootcamp and other training with a “graduation” and make a big deal of presenting certificates. Create some peer awards that cohorts of trainees can award each other. Spotlight your managers who excel at leadership skills: those with very low turnover or those who have consistent high-performance teams, or the highest engagement scores, for example. You should also consider giving employees the opportunity to nominate their managers for awards. 

Middle managers are a vital resource. They have significant day to day impact on organizational performance and talent retention, yet they are often overlooked and neglected by many organizations. More robust approaches to developing and engaging them will offer great dividend to your organization.