Need a new HRIS? Our new buyer’s guide is packed with all the things you need to know. Get your free guide now

Why middle managers are so unhappy – and what you can do

With 70% of team engagement linked to managerial influence, supporting middle managers has a clear correlation with improved business outcomes and decreased risk of disengagement and turnover. The CEO of a talent intelligence solution shares three actionable tips on how you can help your managers shine in their roles.

Karim Nehdi

Karim Nehdi

Karim works to understand and harness different ways of thinking at scale to make learning and work more productive, inclusive, an...

middle managers

Middle managers might be the busiest people in your organization. They oversee other employees, negotiate with peers, and manage up to executives – all while juggling individual responsibilities. They’re crucial to executing organizational goals but often lack the time, resources, or authority to do so effectively.

Instead of asking why middle managers are so unhappy, perhaps we should wonder why any are happy.

As leaders and organizations, we can’t ignore this problem.

According to Gallup, managers are the biggest single factor in employee engagement – 70% of team engagement is determined by the manager. As our middle managers go, so do our businesses.

70% of team engagement is determined by the manager

And yet, in 2023, managers were rewarded with smaller budgets and more work – and they are the top target for layoffs.

Given these competing pressures, how can we give middle managers the support they need so they can flourish instead of fueling discontent and disengagement?

Here are three suggestions.

1. Promote a culture of psychological safety

Middle managers face the unique challenge of managing not only their direct reports but also their superiors and peers. Conflict and stress are inevitable when managing these relationships. Add in the murkiness of office politics, and it’s easy to see why middle managers get worn out by navigating interpersonal relationships.

Related: How to ensure psychological safety at work

The antidote to burnout here is to actively cultivate a greater sense of psychological safety in your culture.

You’ll have to be patient – psychological safety accumulates over time. It’s the result of many, many small interactions where a person actively views a situation from somebody else’s perspective.

They don’t immediately judge something as right or wrong. Rather, they explore other perspectives and ideas, and they learn from the interaction. The other party feels seen, heard, and welcomed.

The reason these exchanges matter – sharing your thinking while learning about other people’s thinking – is because psychological safety is dependent on the people involved. Their thinking, their personality, their comfort level all matter.

For example, I’m an analytical thinker who loves to tear into data and explore what it means. That can create psychological safety for me and like-minded people. But for people who don’t understand the data or feel personally attacked by such an examination That approach can make them quickly feel confused and overwhelmed.

Imagine a workplace where middle managers feel they can be honest and vulnerable about their thinking and perspectives with their bosses. In turn, they’re also curious about their colleagues’ thinking, and they proactively inquire about their direct reports’ insights.

Suddenly, there’s less confusion and miscommunication. Even the most difficult conversations become easier because both parties start with some level of trust.

2. Coach middle managers for the role

Many people enter management because they’re top performers who get promoted, often without specific training for their new role. Unfortunately, RedThread Research found that managers received less support in 2023 than the year before.

Unsurprisingly, manager effectiveness plummeted.

Middle managers need executive-level support. That means recognizing the unique stresses they’re under and how to offset them.

Related: Employee development and the Peter Principle: Why your managers keep messing up

Start with robust training and coaching before, during, and after their rise through the ranks. You can help middle managers better understand their thinking through the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument® (HBDI®) and other assessments.

When they understand how they prefer to think in the workplace, they can be more deliberate and effective in their communication — and develop deeper, more collaborative relationships.

Consider training middle managers in conflict resolution so they’re better prepared to handle difficult situations while managing up, down, and across.

By helping middle managers view workplace conflict as an opportunity for collaboration rather than winner-take-all, they’ll feel less defensive and more engaged.

3. Reexamine their workloads

Even when companies recognize middle managers’ importance to company culture and strategic execution, the result is often more work – without an increase in resources. This expanded scope of work can be overwhelming, leaving little time for self-care and personal development.

Look at your middle managers’ individual responsibilities. Can they reasonably complete their individual work and elevate their teams?

Freeing up your overworked middle managers isn’t easy. That’s where culture comes back into play. Do your middle managers feel they can ask for help with their workloads, or do they fear being labeled as incompetent or lazy? HR leaders need to help middle managers see that speaking up won’t be penalized.

Work with executives to reprioritize middle managers’ individual responsibilities. Some top performers might be better off as more of an individual contributor. Others will need support for redistributing their work down to their reports, across to other teams, or both.

Organizations that train, support, and elevate their middle managers will improve productivity, retention, engagement, and business results. Those who don’t will keep wondering why their managers are so unhappy – and why turnover and brain drain are a constant problem.

Karim Nehdi is CEO at Herrmann, which has helped people at the world’s best-performing organizations bring their Whole Brain® to work for more than 40 years with an evolving suite of assessments, employee engagement, and talent intelligence solutions.

Frequently asked questions

Elevate your HR management

Streamline onboarding, manage employee profiles & simplify HR document sharing with Workable's new features.

Learn more

Let's grow together

Explore our full platform with a 15-day free trial.
Post jobs, get candidates and onboard employees all in one place.

Start a free trial