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  • Joe Farris and Laura Muldoon

Lack of effective middle management is hurting organizations. Here’s what HR leaders can do.

“Middle management” can carry a disparaging meaning, and has been the punchline of endless Dilbert cartoons and Michael Scott comedic antics on The Office. However, middle management is a critical, and too often underserved, employee group that drives company success. Front-line people managers are responsible for inspiring employees, championing company goals and culture, and executing on critical programs. In fact, Gallup estimates that 70% of the variance in employee engagement is attributed to managers. An effective manager can be more important to an employee’s experience than compensation.

During times of crisis, the importance of leaders and strong people managers is highlighted. Many of us are juggling sustained long-term work from home, the normal stress of our jobs, and the unknown of the pandemic. When middle managers were thrown into this new environment they were tasked with reassuring employees, promoting engagement virtually and continuing to push toward company goals, oftentimes with less resources. Results of a recent 15Five survey show that managers have not only found it more difficult to perform their job during the pandemic, but they also feel they do not have the right tools to perform well.

How can we support our people managers and provide them with the tools they need to inspire others? First, we must have the proper people in place. Particularly in less mature organizations, HR leaders are often faced with young, inexperienced people managers who have been promoted because of tenure. But a title does not make a manager; it takes time and training to set people managers up for success -- and the return on this investment is well worth it.

Start with these three key steps:

Identify your natural leaders

First, understand what a “leader” means at your company. Do you value authenticity? Inspiration, influence? Even in a young organization, you can focus on those who have potential for true impact and who will manage in a way that is aligned with your values.

Fundamentally, people managers should believe their success relies on the success of the entire team. They should have an authentic interest and passion in keeping their team engaged, developing, and aligned with company goals. They should have the ability to gain credibility, to influence at various levels and to advocate on behalf of their employees when appropriate.

Once you understand the values that make a good people manager, it’s important to go through a rigorous assessment to identify key people in your business, both current and potential managers, who emulate those values and expectations. The results will allow you to have a strong sense of who is effective, who needs support, and who is not cut out for the job.

Invest, train and communicate

Now, the focus turns to setting your managers up for success. Start with a skill assessment to understand manager development needs and make a plan to fill the gaps, including training, providing opportunities (for example, a larger team or more strategic work). Think about reducing the amount of individual work expected of managers to allow the time and effort needed to focus on people management. When managers are evaluated only on their technical contributions their focus on people management, which is critical to the success of the team, often gets lost or deprioritized.

In addition to training opportunities, consistent engagement and honest communication is critical, especially in times of change. Ask managers about new tools they may need in this environment to help set their teams up for success. Remember they are the front-line of communication to employees, and need to be kept informed and equipped to answer questions on programs and policies. To the extent possible, consider actively engaging these managers in the development of the programs -- this outreach will lead to a stronger sense of ownership and accountability when implementing with their teams.

Establish a career path

Ingrained in many company cultures is the belief that in order to progress in your career, you must manage people. This approach is a sure way to lure many unqualified people into manager positions because they are seeking the next promotion.

Companies can get ahead of this belief by defining and communicating clear career paths for individual contributors to have more impact, more senior titles and increased compensation. Consider implementing a technical track alongside a management track, which allows individuals who do not have an interest in managing people to continue to contribute their best talents to company goals. At the same time, this allows those who are better suited and interested in people management to thrive.

Particularly for smaller companies with less opportunities for people management, allowing for career progression outside the management track, and supporting the development of high performing individual contributors, allows you to focus on those managers that have the true desire, or skills, to manage others.

During turbulent times especially, equipping managers with the tools and training they need to support their teams is critical to employee engagement, retention and productivity. HR leaders can seize this moment to empower front-line managers and ensure they are in the right role, have the right values and mindset, and are fully informed to lead their teams.

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