Read More

Middle Managers are the Retention Elephant in the Room

Few things are more determinative of an employee’s decision to stay with an employer than the quality of their immediate manager. Unfortunately, in many organizations, such managers are being set up to fail.

When the term “The Great Resignation” first came into widespread use at the beginning of 2021, few people would have believed that the phenomenon would still be going strong more than two years later. Though retention statistics are not quite as dire today as they were from 2021-22, it’s safe to say that high resignation levels are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and that they are now “baked-in” to the country’s business environment.

Much of this can be attributed to deep structural conditions that employers have very little control over, such as a shrinking working-age population, the large-scale retirement of the baby boomer generation, and a declining labor force participation rate. The simple truth is that there is a general talent shortage in America today, which means that there are more opportunities available for employees who are looking to jump ship.

That being said, employers who have been suffering from attrition problems are not powerless to change their situation. After all, if an unacceptably large fraction of your workforce is actively seeking alternative employment opportunities, there are probably good reasons why.

Who manages the managers?

Assuming that your organization’s offerings are at or above industry standards for items such as salaries, benefits, and flexibility, the next most important variable is the quality of middle management. Research by Gallup shows that most organizations do a poor job of selecting people for promotion to managerial roles and that fully half of all jobseekers are looking for a new position due to bad experiences with a manager.

Oftentimes, employees are promoted to managers because they excelled in the type of role that they are now being tasked with managing – for example, a leading salesperson being selected to manage a sales team. However, just because someone was great at the “doing” part of that job does not automatically mean that they are well-equipped for the “managing” part. The same reporting by Gallup suggests that only about 1 in 10 people possess the talent to excel as a manager, which indicates that the decision to promote someone to a manager position without previous applicable experience should not be taken lightly.

Furthermore, organizations often set their middle managers up for failure by failing to provide them with the tools and resources that they need to succeed. For example, if a manager is not given formal training on how to communicate with their reports, they may inadvertently slip into micromanaging or its opposite, a lack of responsiveness. A manager without proper support from their organization may also be unable to properly coach their subordinates on areas of improvement or secure the resources necessary for career growth and professional development, both of which are critical retention factors.

New managers who are thrust into the role without adequate preparation and support can cause a tremendous amount of damage, with negative impacts on employee morale, engagement, presenteeism, and corporate profitability. Alternatively, managers who are given sufficient training and organizational support can do a great deal of good, as proper management is an enabler for positive employee behaviors, high productivity, and superior rates of retention.

The data is clear: when employees like their manager and feel as though there is a path for them to grow in their career, they tend to stick around.

With the cost of replacing employees being so high, there is a clear financial incentive for employers to get this right. Because of this, new managers should be put through a training and development program where they can be primed for success. Depending on the organization, this training can either be outsourced or created and managed in-house. Topics to be covered might include the following:

    • Making the transition from peer to supervisor.

    This is an immeasurable but critical element for the success of recently-promoted people leaders. Social dynamics can be tricky, and many new managers struggle with wanting to be liked and suffer from insecurities, which can make it difficult for them to lead effectively.

    • Soliciting and giving feedback.

    Oftentimes, new managers only discuss employee performance during yearly reviews. Instead, they should be scheduling regular touch points with their teams so that feedback is constantly being shared. New managers shouldn’t be afraid to ask their teams for candid feedback on themselves as well in order to help them grow in their role and identify potential areas of improvement.

    • Building Trust.

    New managers sometimes struggle with getting respect and trust from their team, especially if they were “one of them” just a few weeks ago. Team members need to trust that their manager is acting in good faith and there to provide help. Otherwise, they may hesitate to go to them with questions, comments, and concerns, creating a lose-lose situation.

    • Understanding Accountability.

    New leaders are accountable for the performance of people besides themselves, which can take a bit of getting used to. When an error is made by a subordinate, a good leader works to determine why it happened and helps to solve the underlying problem in a supportive manner. This helps to build a culture of learning, mutual respect, and positive growth.

    • Asking for Help.

    Recently-promoted managers may feel increased pressure to perform and be wary of asking for advice on how to handle difficult situations. This is why upper management needs to ensure they are promoting an open-door environment and providing middle managers with the training and development they need in their capacity as people leaders. If they do not, the negative effects will trickle down to the rest of the organization.

Ultimately, building a culture of effective management is not a simple process. It is not a light switch that you can turn on or a problem that can be fixed with more money, but an intangible cultural change that needs to be nurtured over time. Organizations that take this task seriously and succeed in building a caste of high-performing managers will be insulated from the problems associated with low retention and go a long way towards turning themselves into an employer of choice.

For more tips on attrition-proofing your organization, check out this blog post: Employee Retention Amidst Economic Turmoil.