5 Ways To Save Your Middle Managers From Burnout

Stepping into a management role requires shifts in perspective and responsibility. Here’s how to help your middle managers become the best leaders possible, without burning out.

5 Ways To Save Your Middle Managers From Burnout
[Image: Flickr user James Bowe]

If you want a recipe for disaster, just follow in the footsteps of many businesses today: As organizations are getting flatter and pushing responsibility down the ladder onto middle managers, those middle managers are not receiving the leadership development training they need to handle these responsibilities.


A recent Harvard Business Publishing study found that less than 30% of organizations felt their development programs had evolved to match the changing needs of middle managers. More than two-thirds of companies reported feeling the need to entirely revamp their middle manager development programs.

More responsibilities coupled with insufficient development leads to burnout risk for middle managers, which causes turnover. The 2014 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report shows that 79% of business and HR leaders worldwide believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem.

Excessive turnover among middle managers can hollow out leadership pipelines and undermine succession planning. In fact, this is already happening. The Deloitte survey found that 86% of global business and HR leaders believe they do not have an adequate leadership pipeline.

So how can your company retain middle managers by giving them the training and development they need to cope with the heavy responsibilities on their plate?

1. Start developing leaders earlier in their careers

If middle managers are being asked to take more responsibility earlier in their careers, you can increase their ability to cope and reduce their risk of burnout by making sure they have the training and development they need to handle all the challenges coming their way.

Until now, many companies have used a ‘barbell’ style approach–investing heavily in training senior executives on the high end and giving basic training to new managers, but giving short shrift to the middle ranks. Now is the time to drop the barbell. Start giving middle managers ranks the attention they deserve.


In fact, a 2013 Harvard Business Publishing survey of 400 talent development professionals found overwhelming support for boosting the strategic capabilities of middle managers. A vast majority–80%–of respondents reported that their organizations were focused on building change management skills among middle managers, while 76% indicated they were trying to improve middle managers’ communication and talent management capabilities.

2. Recognize that the biggest hurdle you will face is time, not money

What’s the fastest way to make your stressed-out managers even more anxious? Insist that they drop everything, leave all their time-sensitive projects in limbo and take a few weeks to focus exclusively on developing their skills and capabilities.

Participants in the 2013 Harvard Business Publishing survey were nearly 70% more likely to choose time over money as being the major impediment to new development initiatives. What’s the implication of this finding? Traditional approaches to leadership development which require middle managers to step away from their day-to-day job to attend lengthy off-site programs or retreats probably won’t cut it anymore.

Even if you have the best intentions to reduce middle manager burnout, you’re going to have to find a way to deliver leadership training and development in a way that meshes as seamlessly as possible with middle managers’ busy schedules.

3. Use technology to reach middle managers when and where they have time to learn

Harvard Business Publishing’s research shows that a majority of business leaders tend to have high familiarity with common Web-based communications platforms including YouTube, Facebook, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Skype.

So why aren’t talent development professionals using online video, Web conferencing or online meeting software tools in their leadership and development learning programs?


This is a missed opportunity. Technology can help you break down the time barrier and enable you to defuse burnout issues by helping managers squeeze learning into their busy schedules whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

4. Help managers learn a leadership mindset

Leadership success depends on more than skills. Two-thirds of the respondents to a 2012 Harvard Business Review global survey of managers and leaders at large corporations agreed that their organizations needed to work on developing mindset, self-awareness and leadership behaviors alongside continued investment in building skills.

Becoming a middle manager often involves a significant shift in mindset from personal achievement to gauging success based on the accomplishments of a team. Yet in flat organizations, middle managers may not wield much in the way of formal authority to control the actions of that team.

Being on the hook for results without having the power to make those results happen? That’s a sure-fire way to get burnout.

You can lower that burnout risk by making sure you’re equipping middle managers with a leadership mindset that enables them to establish trust, build motivation and shape a positive team culture. With the right approach, middle managers can get the results they need through persuasion and collaboration.

5. Broaden leadership training beyond classroom education

In 2011, three Harvard Business School professors published The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being. The book made a persuasive case for why leadership development depends just as much on practicing leadership (doing) and changing one’s mindset (being) as it does on the traditional practice of acquiring new ideas (knowing). This argument was so convincing that Harvard Business School redesigned its own MBA program to deliver the whole Knowing-Doing-Being package.


How can you apply the Knowing-Doing-Being principles to your own leadership development program? The biggest impact may come from blending experiential on-the-job learning, coaching and feedback with formal classroom training. This 360-degree immersive environment helps managers escape the burnout trap by replacing it with a positive feedback loop of continuous improvement.

Want even better results? Try using a cohort approach to leadership development. Let middle managers go through the training program in groups to create a sense of togetherness. They’ll build lasting relationships with their peers and make connections that will ultimately strengthen collaboration throughout your company.

Peter Walsh is Senior Director of Global Marketing at Harvard Business Publishing.