How to turn your middle managers into confident leaders

When it comes to investing in your company’s future, equipping your middle managers with the necessary leadership development strategies can make or break your business — and your team’s morale. 

To build an organization with effective, confident and empowered leaders, HR professionals must be able to identify and foster qualities that best prepare middle managers to step into those roles. Your organization can ensure middle managers have the opportunities they need to succeed by implementing a series of key developmental strategies that, in turn, will also strengthen your business. 

Help them address conflict

As middle managers move up in an organization or their span of control increases, the consequences of poorly managed interpersonal conflict can be more widespread and have greater magnitude. Knowing how to effectively navigate these situations is critical. Yet, 34% of middle managers say they lack the resources to address team conflict, according to a recent report from The Predictive Index (PI) and HR Dive’s studioID.

Pro tip:

  • Lean on empathy. “Conflict often results from a lack of understanding or empathy,” says Nick Schacht, chief commercial officer at SHRM. Practice and encourage empathy, but be wary of what Schacht refers to as “mepathy” — which he defines as the expectation that others will meet you where you are rather than meeting people where they are. 
  • Empower them to fail. Much conflict arises because people are afraid of making mistakes or uncertain about how to navigate when they do. Schacht suggests creating an environment where people don’t have a terminal fear of failure to strengthen their confidence and resilience. 

Prioritize their development

If you want to build confident and empowered leaders, development is non-negotiable. Yet, the survey found that too many middle managers don’t have the time for it: 54% say a lack of time is the main factor stopping them from taking advantage of training and development opportunities. And if they can’t find it at your company, they’ll find it elsewhere. Deloitte research found that 29% of Millennials and 29% of Gen Zers left their current role and chose a new job based on learning and development opportunities.

Pro tip:

  • Create a rotation program. Rotate middle managers into other roles to expose them to more of your organization. This allows them to better understand the business and their roles and to build interpersonal relationships. Schacht says this can also foster a better understanding of business challenges and opportunities, as well as provide clarity around how they can contribute within their roles and how they can collaborate with others.
  • Give them stretch projects. “The better way to train middle managers is through stretch projects so individuals can be exposed to things beyond their level of control,” Schacht explains. Do this by encouraging middle managers to participate in decision-making processes and by involving them in more challenging activities beyond their role’s immediate scope. 

Make them feel heard — and actually listen

You want to nurture middle managers into leaders who will listen. When over 300 people leaders were asked about the state of middle management earlier this year, the report showed that middle managers do not feel heard. Moreover, 58% of middle managers say they are not very confident their concerns are heard when approaching executives about an important issue. Ironically, 58% of executives are very confident middle managers’ concerns are heard. 

Pro tip:

  • Go beyond surveys. Consider using a portion of your check-ins to get a pulse on how your middle managers are doing or set a specific meeting (monthly or quarterly) aside for this purpose. Proactively solicit feedback after each project. Ask them where they feel blocked. And, most notably, when they relay something they need to you, act on it. 
  • Share results. Gather with executives and share what’s happening on your teams. Then share that with the rest of the organization — including a plan for what you’re doing to fill in gaps or areas you’re celebrating. Don’t keep feedback in a silo. 

Mind their mental health

Middle managers are in a tough spot, serving as the link between junior talent and executives. So much so that 99% of people leaders believe middle managers are stressed, 44% are “very” or “extremely stressed.” To keep middle managers around long enough to become empowered leaders, you must ensure they don’t burn out first. 

Pro tip:

  • Prioritize your mental health. Just like you’re told on an airplane, if the oxygen masks fall, you must put yours on first to help anyone else. Managing your own mental health and being open about it can help you to lead by example.
  • Help them set realistic goals. “If you give somebody a job that’s not achievable, they will be stressed. They will burn out, and that’s your fault, not theirs,” Schacht says. This goes hand in hand with listening to and hearing out your middle managers: After all, you can’t set realistic goals if you don’t understand their workload, responsibilities and strengths. By applying your organizational knowledge to these conversations, you can help them set better, attainable goals that benefit them and your business.

Show them how to delegate

Learning to delegate is one the most challenging skills to acquire, but it can create much stronger leaders. “As you move up in an organization, you get more responsibility and more things to master. But you can’t be the expert in everything. You can’t be in control of everything, and you can’t expect that everybody’s going to do everything your way,” Schacht explains. “You have to let the people on your team bring their initiative and creativity, and hold them accountable for results.” 

Pro tip:

  • Prepare your managers. Expose your middle managers to new projects and processes, and encourage questions. By guiding them through your decision-making processes, they can gain a better understanding of the role while still in their current position. This will allow them to grow as professionals while also building confidence in their ability to succeed.
  • Cascade your delegation. Give your middle managers opportunities to take on new responsibilities while still in their current roles. Schacht adds, “This also frees up the director to take on some things a VP would have to do, which simultaneously allows you to develop the director and prepare them for a VP level.”

Finally, turn inward

What do you wish you had more of when you were in a middle manager’s position? What helped you get to where you are today? What style of leadership from others inspired you most? And what did you constantly tell yourself you wanted to do differently? 

Your middle managers are looking up to you now, and what they see will influence if and how they turn into confident, empowered and effective leaders. To learn more about how to help people leaders manage better, connect with The Predictive Index.