4 Ways to Make Middle Managers Better Leaders

Don't treat middle managers like forgotten middle children. Here are some ways to improve middle leadership, engagement and satisfaction.

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By Heather R. Huhman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When middle managers fall short, senior leadership may be to blame. In fact, a January study by Vanderbilt University discovered poor senior-level managers can influence middle managers to become poor managers, as well.

When senior managers treat middle managers poorly, there's a chain reaction. Middle managers then treat their employees poorly, leading unhappy employees to leave the company.

Don't treat middle managers like forgotten middle children. Here are some ways to improve middle leadership, engagement and satisfaction:

Related: 5 Ways to Foster Learning in Your Workplace

1. Improve training.

When it comes to leadership training, middle managers are often left out. Many organizations invest resources in training new managers and strengthening senior managers but neglect to continue developing the skills of the middle managers.

In a survey of 600 U.S. employees conducted by SHRM in August 2013, middle-management employees were less satisfied with professional development programs provided by their employers than executive management employees.

With a high volume of work and little leadership training, middle managers are left to do what they feel is best and model what they see. Extending leadership development programs to include managers of all levels using a model where leaders learn from each other.

The 2013-14 Benchmarking study conducted by Towards Maturity found that 86 percent of employees surveyed learn what they need to know from work by collaborating with others. What's more, in a 2014 study conducted by researchers from the Harvard Business School, employees who reflected on their performance and shared their experiences with others learned more and improved their performance.

In a reimagined training program, senior managers can train middle managers, and middle managers can reinforce their skills by training new managers.

Mentorship programs can also help improve leadership development. Middle managers can mentor upcoming leaders while receiving advice from their own senior mentor.

2. Relieve stress.

Not only are middle workers under trained, but they're also overworked.

A report published in the June 2013 issue of Health Service and Delivery Research found that middle managers in healthcare work with limited resources and have increasing workloads that demand long hours.

However, this phenomenon is hardly limited to the healthcare industry. With the pressure of keeping key components of an organization running, middle managers must complete challenging tasks under a great amount of stress.

But neglecting a work-life balance takes a toll on staff and the organization as a whole. Stress is related to multiple health conditions, and a 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association found workplaces are the biggest source of stress.

Related: 6 Ways to Be an Effective Leader

Although employers want hardworking staff, working too hard without any downtime is unhealthy for employees and the bottom line. In an analysis conducted in 2014 on behalf of Project: Time Off, Oxford Economics found that unused vacation time has accumulated $224 billion in liabilities for private American companies.

Prevent burnout among middle managers by helping to mitigate their stress. Check in with them on a weekly basis to see what resources are needed.

Consider providing stress-relieving perks like gym memberships, reduced working hours on Fridays and happy hours with the team. Strongly encourage and remind them to take their vacation time -- they need to rest and recharge to function at their best.

3. Provide feedback.

Middle managers may feel lost because they don't know how they're doing.

In a 2014 survey of more than 2,700 employees at companies in 27 countries conducted by SAP and Oxford Economics, 41 percent of non-millennial and 29 percent of millennial employees expect more feedback than they currently receive.

In addition, 94 percent of organizations surveyed by SHRM and Globoforce in 2013 believe positive feedback improved employee performance and 90 percent felt feedback from a direct supervisor and from others within the organization is more accurate than feedback from a supervisor alone.

Middle managers need feedback from executive leaders and from the employees they lead. Providing feedback and recognizing hard work will help to boost their engagement and leadership skills, and in turn will boost the performance of the employees they lead.

4. Be a better role model.

Middle managers mimic the behavior of their leaders, and they need stronger role models to show them how it's done. Molding better middle managers ultimately comes down to being a better senior manager.

Senior executives need to take a hard look at their leadership strategies and evaluate what bad behaviors their middle managers may be picking up. Don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk by making an effort to be a better leader and model the strategies middle managers should use within the organization.

Related: 10 Ways to Have Better Check-Ins With Your Employees

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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