According to an in-depth review by the BBC, managers are increasingly struggling in the workplace. The challenges of “middle management” have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and move to hybrid work. While we’ve written about keeping staff engaged, explicitly supporting managers requires a different approach.
Citing an October 2022 survey of knowledge workers, the BBC reveals that:
…executives reported 40% more work-related stress and anxiety, 20% worse work-life balance and 15% less job satisfaction in the past year. This trend was particularly pronounced among middle managers, with those at large organisations showing the lowest scores for work-life balance, alongside the highest levels of stress and anxiety.
In short: managers are struggling. It’s both the nature of the role and a consequence of the moment. We’re asking them to do a lot, and often providing few resources.
How can nonprofit leaders better support managers at their organizations?
Start with a Strategic Plan
The first step is making sure your organization’s direction is clear. A strategic plan is a roadmap for the next 3-5 years at your organization, including goals, strategies, activities, and metrics for how you will evaluate success. This roadmap can help managers at every level prioritize their time and energy.
A strategic plan also allows managers to speak more confidently to their direct reports about where the organization is going. Often, managers can feel torn between the decisions made by leadership and the concerns of their staff. That’s why it’s critical to make sure managers understand the full path ahead, including where the organization is going and why.
Clarify Roles and Responsibilities for Managers and Staff
Burnout can be especially acute for managers. Nonprofits are notoriously under-resourced, which means we often ask far too much of managers. We want them to do the work they’re great at (which is usually why they were promoted) while also managing staff, representing leadership’s decisions, and putting out fires. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Using your strategic plan, however, you can clarify roles, responsibilities, and expectations across your organization. Start by setting clear and measurable expectations for each department, team, and staff position, including managers and their direct reports. Empower department heads and middle managers to prioritize work that contributions to these outcomes, and to identify work that doesn’t.
That way, managers can focus their energy on the outcomes that will make the most difference for the organization, rather than the demands that feel the most urgent.
Provide Training for Managers
The nonprofit sector tends to talk a lot about leadership development, and yet most organizations provide far too few resources for managers. Particularly for new managers, stepping into the role can be incredibly challenging. Managers may find themselves suddenly navigating many personalities, organizational decisions they don’t understand, and a constant crush of urgent deadlines.
That’s why we recommend that organizations invest in ongoing leadership development training for all their managers. Trainings can take multiple forms, such as in-person group trainings, virtual trainings and webinars, or individualized coaching. Considering the significant cost of hiring and training staff, investing in training to retain your best team members is an incredible return on investment.
Give Managers Space for Reflection
We often think of productivity as getting stuff done. Dashing from meeting to meeting. Writing reports. Delivering presentations. Doing check-ins with staff. But amidst all these tasks, it can be easy to lose the connection between the work we’re doing and the meaning behind it.
That’s why we recommend building in time for reflection and innovation, especially for managers. As a recent New York Times piece about taking a break from social media reveals:
Sitting with a thought, as thinkers have throughout human history, has its merits. The thought grows, is pruned, is shaped and sharpened. Thoughts benefit from being worked over and wrestled, from consideration and care.
Encourage managers to carve out time in their schedule for reflection and strategic thinking. This could include simple steps like blocking off days without meetings. Also encourage managers to identify the types of activities that are most taxing and consider alternatives. For example, switching to phone calls instead of video conferencing.
To make sure that reflection and innovation become a part of the job, work with managers to intentionally balance their workloads between deliverables-focused work and projects that require creativity and innovation.
Supporting Managers Benefits Everyone
While we often focus on leadership at the top of an organization, the reality is that managers at every level are key to an organization’s success. Investing in managers helps both their direct reports and their supervisors. You’ll see less burnout, more staff engagement, and greater innovation. All of which means more resources can be put toward achieving organizational goals.
When managers are performing at their best, so is your organization.
For more resources, check out our Nonprofit Leadership Development Webinar Series: Leading with Intent.