Middle Managers Face Unique Challenges. Here’s How to Help

Middle managers, in general, have been dealt a difficult hand. They’re expected to switch between the roles of “boss” and “employee” constantly, which can be difficult in and of itself. They’re required to deal with tactical day-to-day obstacles and specific complaints from employees, but they must also have an understanding of big picture goals from upper management.

It’s a difficult balancing act, and these opposing forces can leave these managers feeling caught in the middle (as their name suggests). If that weren’t difficult enough, there are often fewer support and training resources available for this level of management.

But it’s a mistake to ignore middle managers, who play a crucial role in any organization’s operations, morale, and employee retention. Here’s how to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.

Give Them Great Training

Most organizations focus their training budgets on upper management. This Harvard Business Review article explains why. Discussing big-picture leadership strategy is generally more stimulating and attractive than discussing the detail-oriented tasks of “making the trains run on time.”

Plus, the people in upper management are the ones who control the training budget’s purse strings. Perhaps it makes sense that they’re more likely to spend it on themselves. However, training dollars may be better spent on people who are earlier in their management careers, have lots yet to learn, and haven’t had years to settle into bad management habits.

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The best management training is interesting, interactive, and conducted by professionals on the forefront of legal and industry practices. Having the opportunity to take part in this kind of training can make middle managers feel seen and appreciated. It can also give them the tools they need to feel prepared to do their jobs well.

Good management training should cover these essential topics:

Creating a Welcoming Work Environment

Leaders at all levels of your company need to understand how to create a civil, welcoming work culture. That certainly includes middle managers, who are responsible for at least two levels of junior staff.

Each and every employee should feel welcomed and respected each day when they come into the office. A welcoming environment is key to boosting productivity, and in many cases, it’s also the law.

The best training will give middle managers the chance to practice responding to the kind of negative feedback, concerns, and criticism that they’re likely to encounter from their staff. They can learn the basics of active listening and resisting the urge to dismiss complaints or get defensive about criticism.

Training should also address how things like unconscious bias could be affecting how they hire, fire, and handle performance management, and how even the perception of bias can affect morale.

Avoiding Inappropriate Behavior

It’s easy to say that we want people to treat each other with respect at work, but the word “respect” means different things to different people.

The right training will give middle managers a clear idea of which behaviors are appropriate and which could harm team dynamics and even lead to lawsuits. Specifically, middle managers need to know what could constitute harassment, from the subtlest examples to the most egregious. They also need to understand that they cannot retaliate in any way against employees who have made complaints about the workplace.

Managers should understand that their position of authority comes with certain special responsibilities for their workplace relationships. However, they also need to be able to recognize inappropriate behavior on the part of their staffers and understand that it is absolutely their duty to address it, as we’ll discuss next.

Understanding the Duty to Act

Anyone in a position of authority over others at your company needs to know that they’re no longer only responsible for their own actions. In many ways, they’re responsible for the behavior of their entire staff.

The responsibility for a harassment-free culture lies with every employee, not just the potential perpetrators and victims. (Related: The Bystander’s Role in Sexual Harassment Prevention at Work)

However, this carries special weight for managers. If they witness or sense any kind of inappropriate behavior, they need to report it right away.

This is just a best business practice, for one. Good managers should never ignore when their employees are feeling uncomfortable. But ignoring red flags and failing to take the necessary preventative measures can also put the company in legal danger.

Provide Access to Mentoring and Coaching

Of course, there’s a lot that middle managers should know that isn’t directly related to cultivating a civil workplace.

For example, middle managers need to learn how to delegate efficiently. Compared to upper management, they’re often closer to the “doing” part of the job, so it may be particularly difficult for them to let go and resist the urge to micromanage.

If they’re new to middle management and are transitioning from a job where they were more focused on tactical work, they may also need to work on their conflict resolution and communication skills.

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These are skills that can be sharpened with training and events, but can be particularly suited to mentoring and coaching sessions. Some companies have had success matching middle managers with upper managers, with peers, or even outside coaches.

As this SHRM article explains, one-on-one executive coaching may produce the “most significant impact.” That’s why Southwest Airlines uses mentoring and coaching as a criterion in upper managers’ evaluation process. There should be an incentive for leaders to develop these personal relationships with their team members.

Keep them Engaged

One of the best ways to help middle managers succeed at work is to make sure that they’re not overlooked.

Just like people in any other role, they like to have their voices heard. They like to have some agency over the way things are run. They’d rather be brought into the loop and understand the bigger strategy behind the operatives that they’re tasked with carrying out. Ideally, they’ll have a chance to give their input to upper management before major decisions are made.

Middle managers are particularly at risk of getting overlooked in this regard, due to their unique liaison role. As this article from The Balance points out, the company needs their perspectives and insights, because they can’t come from anywhere else.

Another part of keeping middle managers engaged is providing a clear path for their advancement, and making sure their hard work is reflected by their compensation and benefits.
When middle managers are unhappy, that unhappiness is exhibited in their own management. Click To Tweet That may lead to more unhappy employees and a poor work culture, which in turn hurts productivity and causes other problems. That’s why it pays to keep middle managers happy and productive.

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