Leadership   //   February 2, 2023

Why managers are losing their grip on their leader and employee expectations

One has to gallop back to the mid-16th century to discover the origin of the verb “to manage.” Initially, it was all about horsemanship, as in “handling a horse,” putting it through its paces in the manège – an enclosed area where horses and riders train – and taken from the Latin manus (hand). 

Half a millennium later, there is a worrying sense that business managers are losing their grip and falling at ever-higher hurdles. But to what extent is it their fault the reins are being dropped, considering the increasing intensity of competing pressures from above and below in a period of economic uncertainty?

At the start of 2023, Gartner identified “managers will be sandwiched by leader and employee expectations” as one of the top nine workplace predictions for chief human resource offices this year. 

“Many managers are struggling with balancing the need to implement the corporate strategy on behalf of senior leaders and providing the sense of purpose, flexibility, and career opportunities that their employees expect,” summarized Peter Aykens, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. 

This assessment was backed up by workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report, published in September. The study, which captured answers from 36,000 employees across 20 countries, found that in the U.K. specifically, 41% of managers felt pressured to choose between what their leaders want and the demands of their direct reports. 

Further, almost half (46%) of U.K. managers reported their responsibilities have increased since the pandemic. Tasks that took up the most time included project and team meetings, management meetings, and training and mentoring. On a global scale, 61% of respondents said they had more general responsibilities at work since before the pandemic, compared to only one-third of employees.

State of severe distress

The O.C. Tanner report concluded “mid-level managers are now in a state of severe distress” due to “multiplying responsibilities” and, in part, a lack of support and recognition. This assessment tallied with a Gallup study from early last year that warned managers were feeling the tension in the great resignation – and, therefore, more likely to depart themselves. “The staggeringly high quit rate means many managers are doing more with less, and less, and less. It takes a toll,” wrote Jennifer Robison, senior editor at Gallup.

London-based Wayne Clarke, founding partner of World Class Manager – a 12-module e-learning program to develop and sharpen management skills – explained the growing intensity of forces currently being felt by those in the middle. “It’s getting tougher and more stressful for a few reasons,” he said. “Given the macroeconomic headwinds, there is pressure coming down from the leadership team, and that heat is being turned up.”

Managers are also feeling the temperature from below, said Clarke, whose book, How to Become a World-Class Manager, will be launched in March. “They might be feeling the pitch during a cost-of-living crisis themselves, but their team members will all be pestering them for a pay rise and more flexibility,” he added.

Those managing remote and hybrid working teams are likely to have strengthened bonds with team members and created “microcultures,” as explored in a recent WorkLife article. However, with redundancies a possibility in the coming months, the stronger working friendships forged, especially during the pandemic, will likely make difficult conversations even trickier.

“As the shock absorbers of an organization, leaders often severely compromise their own well-being.”
Robert Ordever, European managing director of O.C. Tanner.

“If you are a good manager, you will have close relationships with your team members,” said Clarke, “and that can be a burden at times, and some people are wondering whether the small bump in salary is worth it.” 

Strained relationships for overwhelmed managers

For example, Clarke recently worked with a sizeable postal business in the U.K. The organization afforded the area managers just 50p (61¢) more an hour than their direct reports. “Most of the guys didn’t want to take the job because an extra 50p an hour wouldn’t be worth losing their friends over,” he said.

On top of that, managers are now expected to keep in step with political correctness and social mores. “In the last three years, managers have been pushed into a position where they must be ‘woke,’” said Clarke. They are also tasked with monitoring team members’ mental health and well-being.

India-based manager Shahnawaz Sadique, senior editor and HR head at gaming news website CommonStupidMan.com, expressed frustration at “the feeling of being left alone” to deal with employee issues. “I often find myself being the go-between for leadership and the team, and it can be difficult when there is a lack of support from leadership.” He added that the sensation of being “unsupported and overwhelmed” would lead to feelings of “isolation.”

Sadique’s experience is all too common. Alarmingly, O.C. Tanner’s survey results indicated 42% of U.K. managers felt their organization only cared about how they dealt with their employees’ issues, not their own. 

“Leaders are putting their well-being on the back burner while they try to juggle the sometimes conflicting priorities of loyalty to their organization and a commitment to their people,” said Robert Ordever, European MD of O.C. Tanner. “As the shock absorbers of an organization, leaders often severely compromise their own well-being.”

Tianne Croshaw, founder and director of the Resilience Wellbeing Partnership headquartered in Nantwich, U.K., argued that managers creating a “psychologically safe place” for staff was a welcome development spurred by the pandemic fallout. “We see a shift in the workplace where more people feel able to open up and talk about their mental health without fear of judgment, knowing confidentiality is being upheld by the person they directly report to,” she said.

Better support urgently needed

However, a manager who doesn’t look after themselves impacts the team warned Croshaw. She used a nautical analogy to explain why self-preservation should come first. “As the captain of their team’s ship, they must take care of their own well-being and resilience levels before they can serve their crew sufficiently and together have everything shipshape.”

If that wasn’t enough pressure, there were additional stressors for consumer-facing managers, pointed out Clarke. He said that the collective trauma felt by society due to the coronavirus crisis was now manifested in short-fused tempers, whether more road-rage incidents or brutal exchanges with customer-service operators. 

“We discovered, through another client, that the anger-level people have when phoning in about a problem with a product was higher than pre-pandemic,” said Clarke. “And what do you do when you want a quicker resolution? You ask: ‘Can I speak to the manager?’”

What, then, should be done to ease the significant burden heaped on managers in 2023? According to Emily Rose McRae, senior director in Gartner’s human resources practice, it starts with organizations adopting a more holistic view of employees and then prioritizing inclusive change management, leader appreciation, and appropriate support. 

McRae underlined the importance of a feedback mechanism so managers could raise concerns further up the chain without consequences. “There needs to be empathic support, and the response can’t be ‘you need to be better at this, figure it out,’” she said. “Otherwise, the managers become this cork in the bottle of what they’re supposed to be.”

“We see a shift in the workplace where more people feel able to open up and talk about their mental health without fear of judgment, knowing confidentiality is being upheld by the person they directly report to.”
Tianne Croshaw, founder and director of the Resilience Wellbeing Partnership.

It may be, McRae added, that structures around decision-making, prioritization, and delegation need to be redesigned. But given the colossal pressure dumped on managers in the last couple of years, perhaps that would be no bad idea.

The notion of rethinking and updating the role of a manager chimed with Clarke. “It would be wonderful if managers could meet with the leadership team, even if only for 30 minutes, and take a blank piece of paper to list the pressures there were feeling,” he said. “Honestly, it would be a revelation for most leadership teams.”

That clear-the-air meeting, added Clarke, could mark the first step in a much-needed journey to redraw what it means to be a manager in 2023. “With the list of, say, the top 10 issues, the leadership team, with the guidance of managers, can redesign processes so that they are supported, the pressure is eased, and most importantly, they enjoy their jobs again.”