We know managers are important, but just how important they are becomes more apparent during times of uncertainty or crisis. Sitting somewhere between an organization’s executive team and the employees responsible for the day-to-day work, managers have a foothold in both worlds, and thus have the challenging job of trying to balance what’s important to everyone. When you add economic instability, a global pandemic, the Great Resignation (or Great Reshuffle), hybrid work, and inflation to the mix, the job of a manager becomes increasingly complicated. They have to lead, manage, think strategically, deliver individual and team results, engage and develop employees, and prevent burnout, all within the context of shrinking budgets and lower headcount. It’s no wonder that many managers aren’t feeling engaged at work.
However, the other side of every problem is an opportunity, and if organizations can find ways to support and enable their managers, increasing manager engagement can unlock overall employee engagement.
The Importance of Managers
Managers play a crucial role in organizations. They bridge the gap between the C-Suite leadership and employees, juggling different priorities, expectations, and goal achievement. They not only manage their teams and the individuals on them but also help them develop professionally. They lead by example and can help reinforce organizational values and culture. Because managers have so many touchpoints within an organization, at different levels and with different teams, a company’s employee experience is influenced greatly by managers.
There’s a saying that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. And while it may seem like a trite adage, there is some truth behind it. One of the top three reasons why employees leave their jobs is that they don’t feel valued by their manager. And 82% of American workers would potentially quit their job because of a bad manager. This isn’t a purely American problem, either — a survey of UK employees in small and medium businesses found that 45% had quit their job because of their boss. As far as retention goes, the impact (both positive and negative) of a manager can’t be ignored.
Closely correlated to retention is, of course, engagement. Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes, but they don’t do it without their managers. In fact, according to Gallup data, managers account for 70% of the difference in employee engagement, and teams with talented managers see 48% higher profitability and 22% higher productivity. Simply put, having good managers is just good business.
Why Manager Burnout Is High
The past few years have been full of uncertainty, and companies have had to continuously pivot, experiment, and adapt to evolving external and internal factors. When dealing with this uncertainty, or times of crisis, the role of managers becomes even more important. But this additional pressure doesn’t come without additional costs.
Burnout is high everywhere, with reports showing 49% of employees are feeling at least somewhat burned out and other reports showing 77% of employees have felt burned out at their current jobs. At the manager level, burnout is getting even worse, with burnout for people managers rising more significantly than that of individual contributors, and even leaders. Manager burnout is causing attrition, too. Lattice research found that middle managers, or managers who oversee teams of managers, are more likely to be actively looking for work than other employees are.
“Being a mediator in a situation where neither side is willing to compromise much can be frustrating and exhausting.”
These numbers shouldn’t be very surprising. The past few years have been fraught with change and unpredictability, so it’s only natural that engagement at work has been affected. According to Gallup, globally, only 21% of employees are engaged at work, while 19% are actively disengaged.
Managers are not exempt from these trends. Gallup’s State of the American Manager Report found that only 35% of US managers are engaged, 51% are not engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. Manager engagement has a trickle-down effect. Engaged managers lead to engaged employees; those who have engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged at work.
But fostering manager engagement has become more challenging, as their responsibilities have grown and become more complicated. In relation to hybrid work, managers have been stuck between leaders pushing for a return to the office, and employees wanting a higher level of flexibility in their job. Over half (54%) of managers say that leaders are out of touch with what employees want, but that they, as managers, don’t have the resources or influence to be able to make changes. Being a mediator in a situation where neither side is willing to compromise much can be frustrating and exhausting.
In addition, with budget reductions, inflation, and both voluntary and involuntary turnover on the rise, employees at all levels are being asked to do more with less. Employees are covering the work of colleagues who have left or been laid off, managing expenses during a period of inflation without a commensurate pay increase, and trying to maintain their own health and that of their families amid changing public health guidelines and other factors out of their control. Managers have been put in the near-impossible situation of asking their teams to take on these extra burdens, while also likely rolling up their sleeves and doing more than their fair share of individual contributor work to make up for the gaps in resources. Meanwhile, they also need to think strategically, try to keep employees engaged and give them development opportunities, and mitigate burnout for their teams as well as themselves. The result? Managers are overstretched and tired. According to the Lattice 2023 State of People Strategy Report report, HR leaders prioritized manager training just behind employee engagement in 2022. But as managers continue to struggle going into 2023 and beyond, developing and improving solutions to support managers needs to be an ongoing focus.
Engaging and Enabling Managers
The good news is that investing in managers can pay off in various ways. We’ve seen the impact a manager can have on engaging and retaining employees. And employees themselves have said that in addition to purpose and development at work, they want a caring manager. What’s important for employee engagement then is not just a what, but also a who. By enabling managers to provide goal alignment, growth opportunities, and continuous communication, organizations can help managers succeed.
Goal alignment is important for organizations to ensure everyone, regardless of level or department, is working toward the same purpose. During times of uncertainty or crisis, alignment is essential for directing limited resources toward the most strategic priorities. When organizations are trying to do more with less, there is not a lot of room for confusion about what teams need to work on. Otherwise, productivity will suffer.
One way to set clear goals is by using a goal-setting framework like SMART goals or objectives and key results (OKRs). OKRs specifically are designed to align teams and drive innovation by setting aspirational goals that are then broken down into measurable outcomes to guide teams on how to reach those goals.
As leaders, managers are responsible for translating company-wide goals into objectives for their teams. Managers can then help employees set their individual goals, understand how their work ties to the larger company initiatives, and prioritize the right efforts. Clarity of goals and alignment within the company can help employees feel a sense of purpose, confidence in achieving their goals, and ultimately, engagement. In fact, 69% of employees who say their manager helps them set goals are engaged, compared to 8% engagement from those who say their managers don’t help them set goals.
Lack of career development and advancement opportunities, above compensation, was the top reason why employees quit their jobs, according to a McKinsey report. And Gallup research shows similar results, with employees who have the opportunity to continuously develop at a company saying they are twice as likely to spend their career there. Employees are looking for more than just a paycheck in their job, and growth and development are important for engagement and retention. Learning and development programs shouldn’t just provide continuous learning for individual contributors; managers need development, too.
HR leaders have already started doing the legwork. In Lattice’s 2023 State of People Strategy, almost half of HR leaders say they now have clear career growth paths to fuel employee development. Career paths empower employees to map out their own development by setting expectations on what needs to be done for them to move up or within the organization. And while employees are primarily responsible for managing their own careers, managers can help accelerate them.
Performance management is a partnership between an employee and their manager. Having standard processes in place (for example, through performance management software) gives managers the time and space to focus on goal-setting with their employees, having development conversations, ensuring they’re creating individual development plans (IDPs), checking on progress with regular check-ins, asking the right questions, unblocking any obstacles, and, in general, helping to set them up for success. Employees who grow in (or beyond) their roles are engaged, productive, and valuable. It’s also rewarding for managers to see their team members develop and recognize they had a part in that development. At the end of the day, any individual success is team success, which is company success.
“When employees feel like their managers are invested in them…they tend to be more engaged and deliver better results.”
There is no such thing as too much empathy. But given how stretched managers are, it might not always be the easiest for them to tap into their own. Providing managers with tools that encourage open and meaningful conversations with their employees can create better manager-employee relationships. When employees feel like their managers are invested in them, professionally and personally, they tend to be more engaged and deliver better results.
In the world of video calls, remote work, and asynchronous communication, establishing a connection between managers and employees can feel challenging. But establishing a regular line of communication can help build trust. Using one-on-ones not just as status updates but as opportunities to talk through pressing topics, goal progress, action items, wins/frustrations, and solutions can be beneficial for both managers and employees. Creating a culture where continuous feedback is encouraged, and training managers on how to give and receive meaningful feedback, also helps everyone be on the same page and avoid any unwelcome surprises when review cycles roll around. Leveraging pulse surveys and engagement surveys allows organizations and managers to gather anonymous feedback on any issues that may be more systemic or timely. And finally, giving managers feedback from either stay interviews or exit interviews is helpful so they are aware of employee sentiment and can address any issues or continue to do things their employees find positive.
Manager engagement is the most important determinant of employee engagement, but as managers are asked to do more and more, keeping them engaged becomes more difficult. HR teams need to build support systems for managers to help them avoid burnout and disengagement. By providing tools to enable goal alignment, growth, and listening systems, organizations can help managers build and support high-performing teams.
To further enable managers, see Lattice’s Manager Tools, such as templates for constructive feedback, one-on-one agendas, remote one-on-one questions, and weekly team updates.