4 ways to develop middle managers for organizational success

Written by Corina Rice PhD, Senior Consultant
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

Middle managers make up around 11 million people in the US workforce and are the driving force behind organizational change, yet approximately half do not receive any formal leadership development. To make matters worse, a skills gap is expected over the next 10 years as retirement rates increase and more inexperienced workers move into leadership roles. However, it is reported that 25% of U.S. organizations have reduced their overall spending on leadership development activities (or never invested in it). Furthermore, when such investments are made for middle managers, they report less satisfaction as compared to senior leaders.

Here are four ways organizations can better support and develop middle managers to bolster organizational success.  

1. Select and promote middle managers with the right skills for the future. 

Middle managers are often promoted after demonstrating technical excellence, not necessarily leadership potential. This leads to skills gaps in four core competencies: change management, communication, coaching, and their ability to align with the organizational leadership mindset. It is important to resist the urge to promote people into leadership roles on the basis of tenure or job expertise, and to purposefully select middle managers with strong problem-solving and interpersonal skills to navigate complex networks of resources and demonstrate a bias for action. This will help to ensure they can resolve conflicts, influence others, and drive organizational performance. 

2. Provide middle managers with formal training and leadership development.

As experienced managers retire, new managers have less time than ever before to mature in the role. Additionally, the average middle manager is expected to handle a larger scope of responsibility, with 50% more direct reports as compared to 10 years ago, and must do so more efficiently, having 15% less time to spend with each of them. Therefore, it is critical to provide middle managers formal development and training on leadership skills and best practices. The most common and effective approach is to blend formal training with on-the-job practice and ensure feedback is on-going and individualized.  

3. Pair middle managers with senior leaders to provide guidance and mentoring.

Middle managers set the tone for employee engagement but need guidance and support to create the right climate. One way for them to learn this is by shadowing senior leaders and participating in stretch assignments in which they receive feedback from a mentor as they practice new skills. Senior leaders can also offer guidance on how to achieve both short- and long-term goals and remove ambiguity around strategic initiatives or clarify areas of shared responsibility. By pairing leaders with middle managers, trust and alignment are enhanced, and a clearer picture is provided about how they and their teams connect to the organizational strategy, which in turn enhances employee engagement. 

4. Solicit feedback from middle managers to increase job satisfaction.

Middle managers report feeling “stuck in the middle,” responsible for satisfying both their senior leaders’ and direct reports’ needs without a clear sense of who is looking out for them. Nearly half indicate they are not satisfied in their role, often stemming from implementing strategies they were not able to influence, and sometimes without enough resources. As a result, they tend to have the highest rate of anxiety and depression and are less energized and motivated than other workers. Considering feedback from middle managers when planning organizational changes will increase their job satisfaction and make it easier for them to adopt and inspire others to implement those changes. 

There are numerous benefits to investing in leadership development, but particularly so for middle managers. By bolstering middle managers, organizations can improve employee engagement and retention, increase satisfaction, build bench strength for the future, and enhance organizational alignment and productivity. Therefore, it is important to consider all levels of management when determining if leadership development investments are proportionally aligned to organizational needs. 

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