How to Survive the Great Resignation

We are in the midst of an unprecedented economic and labor shortage that many are calling “The Great Resignation.” A multitude of factors have emboldened employees to finally say “Enough” and call it quits. While the causes are many, a key solution may rest with those in our organizations who are often overlooked and taken for granted – middle managers. Let’s take a closer look.

Why Is the Great Resignation Happening?

There are many simple storylines to explain why employees are quitting in droves, but in truth, it is the result of many complex factors coalescing at once. One often-referenced storyline is that beefed up pandemic unemployment benefits were keeping people from returning to work. However, after these benefits ended in September 2021, lackluster September job data suggest otherwise. According to CNN, “many workers are now taking a closer look at their jobs and realizing it’s not what they want to be doing anymore… Some want a better work-life balance or higher pay, while others realize their job is just not the right fit anymore, or they want to do something completely different with their time.”

Although the global pandemic accelerated the arrival of the Great Resignation, some of these factors were in play beforehand. Any one or multiple of the following might be at play for your organization:

  • Distributed Workforce – Well before the pandemic, an increasing number of businesses and organizations realized that the location of the best talent may not align with office locations. Many people can work from anywhere, and today this trend is rising fast.

  • Learned Resiliency – The pandemic forced many people to do things very differently to make ends meet, and in the process, they realized they had the courage to leave their jobs and find something better.

  • Reduced Appeal of Office Life – There are many positives from getting together and innovating, collaborating, and building camaraderie as a team – but many of those benefits have long been outweighed by the costs of lengthy commutes and soulless cubical culture.

  • Purpose-Driven Generation – In a previous blog, we made the case that people increasingly want to work for companies that have a clear, strong purpose.

  • Renewed Value of Time –  Life in quarantine caused people to really reflect on how they spend their time – what they are giving up when they go to work, commute, and bring work stress home. For many, returning to ‘business as usual’ has lost its appeal. 

  • Childcare Matters – Some people just can’t return to work even if they want to. Childcare services are still limited, with many employees feeling that returning to work is too risky.

  • Pandemic Benefits – And finally, yes, some people who received increased pandemic-related unemployment benefits are not as motivated to return to work, which speaks more to the need for a living wage than to the supposed “laziness” of workers.

Given the myriad of reasons people may have for leaving the workforce, companies are best served to address the problem in a broad, more holistic manner. Middle managers are well placed to do just that.

Why Are Middle Managers So Important?

Defined as two-levels down from the CEO, we have long known but often marginalized the importance of middle managers. Back in 2001, HBR published a fantastic article, “In Praise of Middle Managers,” that offers this thesis: Most executive leaders undervalue and undersupport middle managers, but when “radical change” is needed, the value of middle managers is significant. And radical change we have! The article shows that middle managers 1) provide more entrepreneurial ideas, 2) are better at leveraging informal networks within the company, 3) are more in tune with employees’ emotional needs, and 4) can manage the tension between continuity and change to keep the organization progressing.

Research on the importance of middle management hasn’t stopped. HBR continues to publish articles that reinforce these principles, recently noting that middle managers “are the engine of the business, the cogs that make things work, the glue that keeps companies together. Especially as remote and hybrid work takes over — and the distance between employees increases — middle managers are more important than ever.”

But being literally “stuck in the middle” can take a toll. A 2015 study of almost 22,000 full-time workers by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that middle managers have the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any worker group. It’s no wonder that the stressors of the pandemic over the past several years have exacerbated the situation.

HBR reports that a 2020 global survey of over 3,000 remote workers found that middle managers (managing 1-6 people) are 46% less satisfied with their jobs than senior executives (managing at least 15 people), they have struggled more than twice as much as executives to maintain a sense of belonging, and they feel more stressed and less productive than their upper-level colleagues. The data also suggest that even when the pandemic wanes, many of those stressors will remain. 

How Do We Best Support Middle Managers?

With proper support from companies to ease their burden, middle managers can more effectively keep the cogs running and attract and retain talent throughout the organization. Here are 7 ideas:

  1. Help middle managers leverage tools optimized for tracking remote and hybrid workforces so they can focus their own energy on building teams and developing talent.

  2. Invest in training for communication skills, inclusion techniques, and coaching to develop management skills.

  3. Reduce the total number of middle managers and/or offer alternative paths of advancement (e.g., content specialists as opposed to people leaders) to focus resources.

  4. Give them more of a say in big-picture idea formulation through listening sessions and meaningful surveys, and then act on that data to drive change.

  5. Reduce workload so they can acquire needed training and focus on employee relationships.

  6. Understand the unique psychological pressures middle managers face and suggest strategies for easing them. For example, consider creating spaces for safe conversations.

  7. Recognize middle managers as connecting leaders. Create development programs centered on both leadership and followership.

These 7 pragmatic ideas hit at the core leadership questions you need to ask:  Is my business resourcing, investing, supporting, mentoring, and recognizing our middle managers so they can thrive?

If you don’t have a strategic priority focused on making your middle managers successful, your entire company may suffer. Radical change is not just a vague construct; it is happening right now. The Great Resignation is here. Are you supporting your middle managers enough to ensure your company survives?