Being an excellent manager is demanding. Managers need to organize, plan, and execute team goals, but the most effective ones also excel at the human aspects of people management like employee development and well-being. While managers are most often hired for leading projects, completing tasks or guiding company strategy, many people leaders find their management responsibilities to be the most challenging aspects of their roles. Leaders who are concerned with the wellbeing of their employees are more susceptible to being influenced by their team members’ psychological states, these human aspects of leadership can contribute to emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions in leaders. Yet managers themselves are often overlooked. So, when managing managers, how can you protect their productivity and wellbeing.
You might think that the best response given these findings is to discourage the human aspects of leadership, to protect your managers. But those human aspects of management are part of what differentiates mediocre leaders from great ones. Connecting with employees, inspiring them, and helping them develop has a host of organizational benefits, such as fostering creativity, reducing turnover, driving productivity, and increasing team performance.
So in this post we’ll provide you with some helpful tips to protect your managers from the “dark sides” of people management, and still gain the benefits of employee professional development that these excellent leaders can offer.
We’ll briefly cover why the human aspects of people management are so important to employee productivity and organizational success. Then we’ll go into four actionable tips to protect your managers from burnout and help them be their best, including:
- Providing social support and info exchange with focus group discussions
- Celebrating your people leaders through feedback exchange
- Showing empathy and interest for your managers’ management struggles
- Encouraging (or even mandating) time off
As always, these tips for managing managers are backed by dozens of research articles from positive psychology, neuroscience and leadership.
Provide social support and information exchange with focus group discussions
The first tip for managing managers is to set up focus group discussions, such that managers can have an opportunity to discuss challenges, share their own effective people strategies, and generally empathize with one another. Research shows that these discussions around the challenges or stressors can have stress reducing impacts for both parties. Referred to as communal coping by psychologists, this stream of research shows how sharing openly with others about difficult events can reduce the stress associated with the event, and allow for potentially new solutions to be discussed.
Having an open forum for discussing their challenges can help these people leaders understand that they are not alone in their struggles, and that it is normal to find these responsibilities stressful, emotionally draining or difficult.
If you’re managing managers, here are some tips for creating an effective focus group:
- Schedule the focus group during a time that does not conflict with day to day work. The last thing you want when you’re managing managers is to have them be frustrated that this is just another meeting. For many, Friday afternoons are a time to slow down towards the weekend, so they might be more open to these informal and less outcome-oriented discussions.
- Keep the group small. As people might be sharing quite personal details during these discussions, we recommend keeping the group to 5 people. This will ensure that the discussions feel more free flowing for managers and that they are comfortable opening up about their challenges.
- Make it a diverse group. If your organization allows for it, we suggest that people managing managers include people from various backgrounds, departments, and experience levels in these groups. This diversity of thought will ensure that unique perspectives are brought to the table, and will help increase the creativity of the solutions. Research shows that groups with diverse members show increased creativity and enhanced problem solving abilities, both of which would certainly be helpful to your managers in these discussions.
- Come with prompts. Not everyone is comfortable opening up to potential strangers about their professional challenges, so we encourage those managing managers to provide prompts for these focus group discussions to guide the conversations. Possible prompts could include:
- What do you find most challenging about leading your team right now?
- What is something you’re most proud of as a leader?
- What is a management skill you’re hoping to build?
When managing managers, you might be inclined to focus your meetings entirely on task or project-related challenges. However, we believe that giving your employees the opportunity to open up about more people related challenges can be very valuable.
Celebrate your managers by collecting (and sharing) employee feedback!
Particularly for those managers who go above and beyond in supporting their team members, it can feel like a pretty thankless job at times. So a second tip for managing managers is to show your managers how much their teams appreciate them. This can be done as part of performance review or a few times throughout the year, depending on the structure of your organization.
Ensuring that this feedback is gathered and shared directly with managers can remind them how important and appreciated their leadership is, and research shows that knowing that your work is appreciated by your colleagues is one of the most effective ways of combating emotional exhaustion at work.
In contrast to more formal employee feedback, which is often collected in the form of short, predetermined questionnaires, soliciting written examples and feedback allows your managers to read specific comments from their employees and colleagues. While metrics are certainly important when conducting performance reviews or developing your organization’s people strategy, if your goal is to support your managers, direct words of feedback can hold more meaning for your managers.
Naturally, as a people leader, managing managers, you’ll want to have some structure to the type of feedback you solicit. We recommend that you consider the following:
- Collect employee feedback from a diverse group: people of different generations and demographics have different expectations of their leaders. So to gather the most insightful, meaningful and helpful feedback for your managers, you should consider collecting feedback from people of various backgrounds.
- Ask direct questions, get specific feedback: while hearing “they’re a great manager” or “I love working with them” will certainly be nice for your managers, collecting and sharing specific and detailed feedback from the employees of your managers will be much more meaningful.
We recommend preparing a short list of questions and collecting a few direct quotes to share with your managers. These words might be just the pick me up your managers need on more challenging days! Below you will find a few proposed questions:
- What do you like most about working with your manager?
- What is something you have learned from your manager?
- How has your manager helped you?
- What is your favorite quality about your manager?
Showing empathy and interest for your managers’ management struggles
When managing managers, you might be inclined to focus your discussions with them primarily on the tasks, deadlines, and projects they are responsible for. We also encourage those managing managers to make time for discussions about how they (your managers) are experiencing their people leadership responsibilities. Oftentimes, particularly for new managers, this can be a key driver of stress at work.
To help your managers cope with this, we suggest you normalize management struggles. Communicate from the beginning that people leadership is challenging, and make it clear that you are there to support them through any difficulties. Some managers might be inclined to hide any conflicts, moments of disagreement or issues they are experiencing with their staff members out of fear that it will reflect negatively upon them. As a manager of managers, you can remind your managers continuously that you are there to support them as people leaders, through both good and bad.
For these conversations, both frequency and tone are important things to consider. We advise that you proactively ask your people leaders how the people leadership aspect of their role is progressing, what challenges they are encountering and specifically how their relationships with their team members are developing.
By having frequent, informal discussions, your people leaders will learn no issue is too small to bring up with you. This approach will also ensure that your people leaders do not wait until a serious problem has arisen to ask for your advice or support.
Being proactive about these topics can help you as a manager of managers ensure that you are steering your employees in the right direction with their people management responsibilities, and opening the door for important conversations that they might be hesitant to initiate themselves. These frequent, informal interactions can help you build a stronger relationship with your managers and serve as a buffer against potential burnout symptoms.
In these conversations, you can also share your own experiences and challenges with people leadership. This is a great way to level the playing field, and show your managers that you have also encountered these challenges in your career. Communicating that you’re not perfect and that it is normal to have struggles is a great way to build empathy and show your understanding, support and appreciation of their situation.
Encourage (or even mandate) time off
A final tip we have for people managing managers is to encourage time off. Many managers will be hesitant to use their full vacation allotments, perhaps because they want to ensure that their team members’ work will not be hindered by their absences, or they want to communicate how hardworking and dedicated they are to their jobs. This can have several adverse consequences, including lower productivity, higher stress and even burnout. Research shows that time away from work is one of the most effective ways to prevent and address burnout symptoms in people leaders, so we recommend those managing managers pay particular attention to this. Food for thought on time off:
- Clarify which days should be taken off. In efforts to show their flexibility and commitment to employees’ wellbeing, some organizations have begun offering ‘unlimited’ vacation time. While this might seem like a good idea, it has actually been found that this results in employees taking fewer days off. It turns out that managers (like all of us) like certainty, and appreciate clear directions on what is or isn’t appropriate. Particularly for those extra hard working managers, clarity on time off is a good way to ensure they take the time they need to recuperate.
- Consider company wide time off. Increasingly, some organizations are implementing “mandatory” days off, where business is completely closed. In doing so they ensure that all employees are benefiting from this down time, not just those who are eager to hit the beach or ski hill.In taking choice out of the equation, this practice can benefit those managers who are at risk of burnout, emotional exhaustion and overwork. If it seems tricky, learn from the best: even LinkedIn experimented with this technique in 2021, giving all 15,900 employees the same week off.
Managers who care deeply about their work and their employees might need a little extra encouragement to take that extra vacation day, or to leave work early on that Friday afternoon. As a manager of managers, you can encourage them to take those well deserved (and necessary!) breaks by actively asking about their next holiday, suggesting that they take an extra long lunch break, and also by modeling this behaviour yourself!
For more information on this topic, check out our earlier blog post that includes some action oriented strategies on preventing burnout.
Recap of Managing Managers – Four tips for supporting your people leaders
Managing people can be stressful, and research shows that managers who really strive to go above and beyond for their employees are sometimes the most at risk for burnout. While most advice for managers is focused on encouraging team productivity through supporting, developing and motivating employees, we don’t often talk about how emotionally exhausting this can be for managers.
Even the most popular leadership theories, such as servant leadership and transformational leadership, don’t acknowledge how much this really asks of leaders themselves. Particularly for managers who hold themselves to high standards and are very committed to their roles, employees and organizations, these expectations can actually result in adverse consequences in the long run. While we don’t recommend you shy away from these leadership styles (after all, they come with a host of benefits for performance, work satisfaction and innovation, as highlighted here), we do suggest you stay cognizant of the emotional toll this can take on your managers. In this blog, we provided four action oriented tips that those managing managers can build into their people strategy to support their managers in coping with the stresses of management.
- Focus group discussions for managers can help your people leaders share stories, best practices and generally lean on each other.
- Gathering feedback from your people leaders’ employees and colleagues can be a great way to communicate how much their efforts are appreciated, and remind them that despite the challenges, their management roles are impactful and do have meaning.
- For the more challenging times, being clear with your people leaders that you are there to support them and showing empathy is an important way of helping them cope with the struggles they will undoubtedly encounter in their management journeys from time to time.
- Lastly, explicitly encouraging your managers to take time off will ensure that they don’t become overwhelmed or exhausted. And this is a behaviour you can model too!
We hope these tips will help you in creating a healthy, sustainable and high performing team culture, in which managers are supported and acknowledged for the important work they do!