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It’s tough being in the middle

Updated: Jun 5

Managers are the linchpin of employee engagement yet rarely receive dedicated management development. Michelle, founder of A Better Work, recently caught up with Dan Doerksen to chat all things management. Here is an overview of that conversation.

Strengths-based teams high-performing teams
Photo Unplash by Jehyun Sung

Listen to the podcast episode

The Problem:  Most workers are checked out 

Shockingly, a whopping 77% of employees around the world are not engaged at work. In Canada, where Dan is located, the number rises to 79%. Unfortunately, the picture is even more bleak in Ireland where Michelle is based, where a total of 89% of employees are disengaged at work,  according to Gallup's State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report.

That's roughly four out of every five people just going through the motions, indifferent to company missions or strategic plans and just coming to work for payday. Does everyone need to skip and jump into work? Of course not, but frankly we can do better with the 80,000+ hours of our lives that we will spend working.

The Opportunity: Managers just might be the silver bullet

While the scale of the problem can feel daunting, the solution might be more straightforward than we think.  According to Gallup, the lion's share of engagement —70% — can be traced back to managers. That means that the vast majority of factors that contribute to the variance in employee engagement come down to the knowledge, ability, and influence of one’s direct manager.

This can feel like a huge responsibility for managers, but it’s also a huge opportunity to make a difference. 

The question for every organisation right now is how to realise that potential.  Most managers we work with are well-intentioned people who genuinely want the best for their teams, so why is there such a large gap between their intention and their impact?  Well, before you go pointing fingers at the managers in your organisation, take a step back,  it might not be their fault.

The Managers in the Middle. Stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Despite their key role in both the organisation and their own team, most managers find themselves stuck in systems and structures that weren’t designed to set them up for success.  Here are just a few hurdles that managers (especially those in the middle) are tripping over in their role:

  1. Lack of training.  Over 80% of managers have never received formal development on how to be effective managers. 

This gap is not just surprising; it's a glaring oversight in how we prepare managers with responsibility for our most valuable asset - our people. Imagine being given a car to drive without ever having taken a driving lesson. That's the reality for most managers. Often they get the promotion to manager for being excellent at the job they were doing, but not necessarily because of their talents for managing people. 

Now, all of a sudden they are thrust in at the deep end. They’re not just managing people and doing their functional job, they need to facilitate meetings, become the conflict mediator, the strategist, the budget creator, master feedback, design ways of working etc, etc, etc.  It’s a steep learning curve.

  1. They’re stuck with legacy processes they didn’t create.  Unless they’re in a startup environment, most managers weren’t in on the ground floor when questions of structures, systems, policies and procedures were first addressed.  As a result, they’ve inherited something they didn’t create, which is notoriously hard to buy into (especially if they’re not receiving the proper onboarding and training!).

Not only is commitment an issue, but many traditional organisational practices place managers in an impossible spot, where they need to enforce company policy (which they may not believe in) while maintaining trust, safety and positive vibes with those they lead.  Take the average Performance Review process, for instance, hard to feel like you have a positive relationship with your manager when you find out they think you’re only a “3.8”.

  1. Development and career progression is a jungle.  Many technical/individual contributor roles have fairly straightforward markers for success.  It’s easy to know if someone isn’t a good carpenter for instance and what they need to do to improve.  As a manager, it’s muddy.  Everyone seems to have a slightly different idea of what management competencies are, what they look like practically, and how to improve them.

As a result, performance management and accountability for managers is often weak.  Despite that, you still have to crack the code for how to impress the right people so that you are considered for the next promotion.  You’re a blindfolded monkey playing darts.  Meanwhile, the team members you’re leading are likely playing the same game of darts, which means they’re gunning for your position!

  1. It’s lonely.  Before being a manager, it’s often easier to know who is on “your team”.  You had peers with a shared purpose, but now your peers are other managers, all with their own teams, departments, goals and priorities.  While you may have a monthly meeting with all of them, where you each share a report that may or may not feel relevant to anyone else, it hardly feels like the same level of support and camaraderie that you had on your previous team.

The Effects of Getting it Right

Addressing all the hurdles that stand before managers can feel overwhelming, but the impact is worth it.  The influence of a well-developed and supported manager extends far beyond basic supervision. Their impact can ripple throughout the organisation, boosting morale, enhancing performance, and significantly improving employee engagement. Engaged and well-managed employees will be less stressed, less likely to take sick leave, and more likely to stick around. 

When managers succeed in their roles, they create a positive environment where employees can feel valued and understood. But the opposite is also true, managers with little to no development or support can create disengagement, conflict and high employee turnover. 

Boost Manager Development = Boost the Bottom Line 

Support initiatives for managers are often packaged as a one-time event, whereas true support is about ongoing growth and development - both for the manager and the organisation. Managers and leaders don't just need to learn the ropes of their own roles; they need continuous support to handle the multifaceted challenges they face. 

This includes everything from conflict resolution to strategic planning and nurturing a positive team culture. "We can put a lot of weight on managers' shoulders and say, “Hey, it's on you to fix all this stuff, and if it's bad, that’s also on you”. That’s just simply not going to work for anyone - you, your business or your team members.

Building a Supportive Manager Scaffold

For managers to truly thrive, they need a culture that doesn't just throw them into the deep end but walks alongside them in their leadership journey. We know there is a massive opportunity here to support managers, but how do we do it? 🤔

  • Create learning and feedback mechanisms that work, which allow your company, your team and your business to know what’s working and what’s not. Invest in creating a strong development framework (not simply training) for managers. Think coaching, training, peer support, mentorship and more.  

  • Regularly address the broken systems and processes in your context that are making it harder for managers to succeed.  Approach this with an attitude of continuous improvement. 

  • Focus on developing a coaching skillset in all managers. 

Managers Mastering Feedback 

What’s interesting is according to Gallup, 90% of employees are actively disengaged after receiving negative feedback. By focusing on developing a coaching mindset you can figure out what works for your team in terms of feedback and how best to deliver it to each person. 

This also means providing them with mentorship, peer networks, and access to continual learning and development opportunities. It's about creating an environment where managers are empowered to be the custodians of the company culture and are equipped to handle the pressures and responsibilities of their role, what we believe, and the behaviours that we want to create versus the one-off training that we often see (“here's how to be a manager.")

“Instead of just ticking boxes with generic, off-the-shelf training sessions, let’s create development opportunities that really have an impact”

By supporting managers properly and creating opportunities for their development, companies aren't just improving the individual capabilities of their staff; they are setting the stage for widespread success for everyone

Champion Yourself

What's the final word for managers?

As much as organisations need to foster managerial development, it's equally important for managers themselves to advocate for their own growth and well-being while also harnessing their voice for positive change

They need to identify their needs, set boundaries, and seek out resources that can aid them in becoming the leaders they want to be. After all, a well-supported manager is a cornerstone of a thriving, dynamic workplace.

To see real changes in employee engagement we need to start with the managers. By doing so, we're not just solving immediate workplace issues; we're investing in the long-term health and success of our businesses and the people who work there.

The best bit is all of this is good for your business - for your bottom line, for retention and for customer satisfaction. If you think we can help, reach out for a chat.

So with that in mind - let’s make work better together.

If you want to listen to the full podcast conversation with Michelle Wallace and  Dan Doerksen you can check it out here.

Let’s make work better together.​​

Michelle Wallace


A Better Work


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