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A 4-point rescue plan for burnt-out middle managers

The changes in how and where we work demand rethinking the role and training of middle managers, this leadership consultant says.

A 4-point rescue plan for burnt-out middle managers
[Source photo: Andrii Lysenko/Getty Images]

You don’t need me to tell you that how we work has changed forever. Technology has advanced to the point where businesses across all industries have embraced automation and asynchronous work. But how have these evolving markets impacted middle managers at most organizations? In far too many cases, it’s leading to nothing but negative business outcomes, such as burnout, attrition, and lost productivity.

In addition to, well, managing their teams through a pandemic, middle managers have dealt with a unique combination of labor shortages, inflation, and return-to-work mandates. A Workforce Institute recent mental health survey found that 46% of managers expect to burn out by the end of the year.

Not surprisingly, there’s a tangible trickle-down to the employees they manage. Recent research from 15Five found that only 37% of employees are impressed by their manager’s leadership abilities and 32% believe their managers need additional training.

It’s abundantly clear that we need to refocus and empower our middle managers to focus on fewer things, which I believe is an exercise that begins with setting clearer expectations. Let’s discuss this and four other areas I believe managers should focus on.


Some organizations have focused on tracking employee productivity in response to an industry-agnostic shift to remote work. But what does “productivity” look like? According to Gallup, most employees have no clue.

Instead of focusing on tracking the hours they spend at their desks, give your managers space to set more explicit expectations with their teams. Gallup adds that to motivate employees, managers must be clear about what’s expected of them at work, hold them accountable for achieving their goals, and respond quickly when they need support.

Eliminating ambiguity around these areas helps employees understand what “high performance” looks like—and, more importantly, how to deliver against expectations. This is particularly important in hybrid or fully remote workplaces, where managers don’t have many opportunities to see employees in person. Regardless of how your teams work, however, providing clarity isn’t a onetime exercise for managers. Their job requires them to provide ongoing coaching and timely feedback whenever a situation calls for it.

As crucial as expectation setting is for middle managers, studies show that employees are likelier to work towards shared goals with managers they feel connected to.


Several years ago, Netflix published its culture guide, famously proclaiming that employees shouldn’t treat each other like family. Organizations worldwide followed suit, and while many experts agree this is the right approach, it doesn’t eliminate the need for managers and employees to connect on some emotional level.

As work shifts out of offices and into home offices, managers must rethink how they build rapport with staff. Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently wrote that to create a strong remote work culture, managers need to connect with their employees through “emotional proximity.” In simple terms, managers must ensure that their employees feel important and, more importantly, seen.

How do you begin creating opportunities for emotional proximity? HBR suggests that managers must go out of their way to show remote employees how their work connects to the company’s mission. “It’s not about heaping praise on people,” one researcher told the magazine. “It’s about ensuring that employees understand the value of their work to the organization and beyond.”


A Gallup survey found that 49% of employees in 2020 felt their managers cared about them. In 2022, that number dropped to just 24%. This is easy. Managers need to start caring more about their employees! Problem solved!

While it sounds like a simple fix, it can be challenging for managers to create an environment where employees feel genuine care, empathy, and compassion. The 15Five report we discussed earlier also found that over 30% of managers needed additional training to create psychologically safe workspaces.

Making this career development a bullet point on your managers’ job descriptions not only creates a more pleasant work environment but also makes a tangible impact on your business. Gallup’s survey found that employees who felt cared about are 69% less likely to search for new jobs, 71% less likely to report burnout, and three times more likely to be engaged at work.


Breaking news: employees quit jobs when they don’t see opportunities for growth in their current roles. As a result, managers need to prioritize their employees’ career development over, well, most things.

According to 15Five’s research, only 52% of employees reported having conversations about their career development with their managers. This is a massive gap and a considerable opportunity for middle managers to support their employees and reduce burnout for everyone across the team.

I built a framework for career development that I refer to as the career operating system, or Career OS. It ultimately puts the onus for career growth in the hands of individuals. But I also believe managers should initiate these conversations with their employees. Even with this framework in place, a manager can still develop habits for constantly showing employees they’re invested in growing their careers. A couple of simple, yet effective examples include regular career pathing conversations, encouraging employees to take on projects outside of their day-to-day that are related to their goals, and partnering with them to build relationships that will grow their personal brand.

There are few guarantees in the current market, but one thing is certain: how we work (and what our employers prioritize) will change constantly and suddenly.

Even though remote employees have sung the praises of their newfound work-life balance, navigating these changes is never easy, especially when they’re left to do it on their own. Most of us agree that burnout is a hot-button issue for managers and employees. In that case, today’s managers should focus on helping their direct reports navigate market uncertainty, especially across their organizations.

This level of empathy isn’t easy, but studies show it’s worth the effort. A report from Gartner found that 85% of HR leaders at midsize companies agreed that it’s more critical now for managers to demonstrate empathy than before the pandemic. The study also found that managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels of empathy.

This managerial job description looks much different than it might have just three years ago. But I think it’s clear we’re long overdue for a massive overhaul of a typical middle manager’s responsibilities. While tracking “productivity” is vital as more workers move to a remote-first environment, it’s even more essential to ensure that employees feel cared for, connected to their managers and organizations, and clearly understand what success looks like in their role.


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Al Dea is is a career and leadership consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He is the founder of Betterwork Labs, a talent advisory firm, and works with companies on how to attract, develop, and retain diverse workforces. More

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