The Hidden Truth 

Ask a room of 100 middle managers this question: “Excluding your current supervisor if they are in the room, how many of you have worked for an amazing manager – just an inspiring leader and terrific mentor?” You might get an affirmative response from 5 or 6 of those attendees. Ask that same group this question: “Excluding your current supervisor if they are in the room, how many of you have worked for a bad manager – just an ineffectual leader and poor mentor?” The vast majority will now respond in the affirmative.

And herein lies the problem, roughly 95% of middle managers only ever experience mediocre or worse leadership and little to no mentoring by the time they reach a supervisory capacity. In many growth companies a middle manager gets the position by default simply because they were the first employee in a department that added people. In either case, middle managers find themselves thrust into arguably the hardest position in a company to navigate (between front office and frontline) without ever having experienced a good role model. This situation is obviously a perfect example of experience not always being the best teacher. Having this type of middle managers in your business can be extremely costly in both personnel turnover and resource inefficiency.

The Glaringly Obvious 

People interpret and react to those poor manager experiences in an individual way. Some employees may copy exactly what they experienced from those bad managers, thinking that is how managers are supposed to behave. This simply perpetuates the existing problem. Some new managers will behave 180 degrees in the opposite direction (i.e., micromanager to completely hands off) wanting nothing to do with treating others how they were treated by their boss. This laissez-faire attitude can result in the same failures and unwanted outcomes. In nearly all of these cases, neither extreme will develop into an amazing and effective leadership style. Gallup reports only 35% of middle managers are engaged with their job, 69% are uncomfortable communicating with subordinates, 37% are afraid to give negative feedback.

The Real Cost to your Business

The costs of this poor leadership promulgation are similarly staggering. Gallup estimates companies pick the wrong person to put in middle management roles 82% of the time. They also report that as much as 87% of turnover is due to employees leaving their boss, not the job or company. And 70% of employee lack of engagement is caused by poor managers. No matter where you gather your numbers (Gallup, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, etc.) the economic impact is striking. At the micro level, direct costs of replacing an employee are roughly 30% of the position’s annual salary plus variable sunk costs and productivity losses which can exceed 500% of their annual salary. At the macro level, U.S. estimates put the additional health care costs for manager related stress on employees at nearly $400 billion and the loss of productivity due to employee absenteeism and lack of engagement at over $600 billion. How much is middle management costing your business?

The Way Forward 

Middle management is in some ways the most difficult position to execute well. They have to manage up and down both professionally and socially, as well as make sound business decisions. A top tier middle manager produces 48% higher profit for their company, according to Gallup. To get that kind of additional return on your middle management investment you must provide for their growth and development, without leaving it up to chance experience. This development usually requires various combinations of formal training, informal mentoring, proper tools, and an excellent role model.

Formal training can include education in leadership, soft skills, decision making, appropriate technical expertise, and conflict management. Mentoring can take the form of simple sharing of wisdom over lunch or casual conversations allowing the manager to divulge current challenges in a safe way and get solid practical advice on how to deal with them in an effective manner. A commonly used tool for guiding a manger’s relationship with their direct reports is a performance coaching template. This template typically has questions and follow up action blocks that teach the manager to uncover the needs of their subordinates during 1-on-1’s and then to provide follow up solutions for those needs. This tool also acts as an ongoing dialogue and record of support actions over time. Lastly, it is imperative to identify and least one excellent role model for the manager to emulate. There is nothing more powerful than the inspiration of a great leader.

Once you recognize that much of the fault for middle management struggle is the lack of experiencing an amazing manager in the workplace, it is easy to stop blaming and move toward a collaborative solution. To reap the benefits of having an outstanding team of middle managers requires intentional investment in their development. One last suggestion for maximum effect, share this article with your managers, have a dialogue about what development they would value most, and discuss a path forward to ensure you only replicate amazing managers in the future!


If you’re interested in learning more about how a Coach can help your business get the right people in the right positions, please contact our team at align5 by clicking here. Or please take our Free Growth Assessment, which will evaluate the strength of your company based on four core business disciplines that must be in place before scaling successfully – People, Strategy, Execution and Cash.

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