During times of unprecedented change, equipping and supporting middle managers has become critical to any organization’s success. According to a recent Forbes article, managers play a very important role in employees’ mental health —  more important than a person’s doctor or therapist. Not only does this solidify how important managers are to an organization and its people, but it also puts a lot of stress on the managers.

Burnout rates for managers are increasing as they balance their own projects and clients with guiding, counseling, coaching and setting up their own team members for success. To achieve this balancing act, managers need support to keep all their plates spinning.

There are many ways learning and development (L&D) leaders can provide support to this middle layer. Certainly, providing learning programs can help if people managers don’t know what or how to do something. But there are other areas to address to ensure managers have realistic workloads, greater role clarity and a common understanding of priorities.

Focusing on an entire manager ecosystem comprised of five different, yet related concepts provides a model to reinforce key manager skills and behaviors. These five areas include:

    1. Appropriate spans of control.
    2. Clear expectations.
    3. Impactful development.
    4. Personalized coaching.
    5. Meaningful rewards.

By clearly articulating and supporting all five areas, L&D teams can equip managers to balance their workloads and stave off burnout.

Appropriate Spans of Control

The first step in the manager ecosystem is a concept called spans of control. This concept considers the scope of responsibilities, level and variation of tasks and circle of influence of the team and manager. Determining spans of control helps to ensure the appropriate number of people are reporting to a given manager.

For teams who work on more rote, repeatable tasks, managers can have 10 or more direct reports. If the team has varied or higher-level tasks, the general rule is that no more than seven people should report to a single manager. However, seven can be too many depending on the breadth of scope and responsibility. For very senior-level leaders, 3-5 direct reports can be enough, given that those leaders reporting to them are quite senior as well.

Here are some questions to ask to determine the appropriate organizational design of teams.

    • Does the manager have too many direct reports based on the variety and complexity of work? If so, a manager may find it challenging to give personal attention to their team members and can burn out faster. Consider splitting up teams or adding in a manager.
    • Does the manager have only one direct report? If so, then they may struggle to create a sense of cohesion among the team. Roles and responsibilities can get blurry because it may be difficult to draw a line between what the manager does versus the direct report. Consider folding a two-person team into another team unless there are plans to grow.
    • Does the manager not have enough scope or influence based on the work? In this case, perhaps the manager has the right number of direct reports but lacks the authority to match the work they are responsible for. Consider working with leaders to ensure authority is granted to match the scope of work.
    • Does the manager overlap with another manager in terms of scope? This situation can lead to confusion and disengagement in a hurry. While many of us may serve the same client or work on the same process or system, roles and responsibilities need to be clear and distinct. Consider getting clearer on roles, processes and hand-offs.

If we look at the level, variation and scope of the team’s work, this activity will help determine how many direct reports managers should have and can reasonably manage.

Clear Expectations

After determining the appropriate team design, ensure that the performance expectations of managers are clear, reasonable, widely acknowledged and understood.

Unfortunately, some managers are unclear as to their role in processes like hiring, onboarding and career development. Some even think these activities are the sole responsibility of HR.

It is important to write down and share expectations of managers within the employee lifecycle framework. It is even more important to ensure people understand these expectations before they raise their hand to be a manager and even gauge their readiness level through an assessment, if possible. Setting better expectations of what it means to be a people manager up front helps set the right tone from the beginning.

These expectations also need to a part of the performance process, which means they should receive feedback and rewards related to management behaviors. Managers also need to be afforded the time to manage. Too many organizations add people management onto already more than full-time jobs. Management, as a role and skill set, requires time and energy to focus.

Manager expectations should include something around hiring and onboarding, managing and coaching performance, developing teams, guiding and setting priorities and inspiring teamwork and collaboration.

This seems like a lot because it is. But if spans of control are reasonable, and there are development, coaching and rewards in place (our next actions), these expectations are achievable.

Impactful development

The third part of the manager ecosystem — delivering effective development programs — is probably familiar to many of us. Providing skill development opportunities that match and reinforce the expectations we set for managers is essential to supporting managers. The behaviors and correlating skills needed should drive the content of the program.

Business has evolved dramatically in the last few years and how we best learn in today’s hybrid environment has too. While half-day and full-day workshops are still an option, there has been a shift to more of a drip method, where we integrate short bursts of dedicated learning time within a manager’s workweek. Instead of two focused days, offer two hours for 6-8 weeks with actions, coaching and connection points in between.

Along with formal learning, manager programs can include peer groups for discussion and coaching for continued learning. Nudges, tips and reminders sent via email or Teams at key points along the employee lifecycle, like hiring or performance review time, will keep the skills and content top of mind when managers need it. Success story articles and video or audio interviews of successful managers can also help to reinforce the learning and reward those star managers at the same time.

Employees are busy; managers are even more busy. Integrating development into their work can help them engage and ensure the learning sticks since we tend to forget over time.

Personalized Coaching

As an extension of the formal development program, providing personalized feedback and coaching to managers will contextualize the skills and behaviors. This level of personal development can be delivered by L&D leaders or even other senior managers.

Engaging senior managers either in title or years of experience is an excellent way to help them give back to the organization. This allows those managers to broaden their visibility and relationships within the organization and flex a different set of muscles.

Those managers being coached also receive practical feedback and coaching from someone who has been successful in the organization. Managers can use these coaching relationships as a safe place to voice sticky situations or new situations they have never dealt with from someone who may have walked in their shoes.

Meaningful rewards

Our final component of the manager ecosystem is rewards and recognition. Often, organizations give accolades to individuals or project teams, and, of course, that is a very helpful way to acknowledge great work. What would happen if there were awards and recognition for the best people managers in an organization? This would do a few things:

    1. It would emphasize that leadership values people management.
    2. It would help our managers feel good and valued.
    3. It would reinforce the skills and behaviors we desire.

Rewards and recognition can take many forms. These can include sending thank-you notes, featuring managers on your employee portal, telling stories of successful managers, giving awards — monetary or otherwise — for star managers, and tying bonuses or salary adjustments to people manager expectations and behaviors.

The idea is to provide all of the above, but these rewards should match the culture. If the culture isn’t one of rewards and recognition, start small by featuring managers through recognition or storytelling.

Enabling managers is one of the most important priorities for businesses today. With constant change, lingering burnout, work and personal life balance struggles, shifting teams, layoffs, restructures, financial demands and economic uncertainty, our managers are the linchpin to our success.

Focusing on all five components of the manager ecosystem will ensure clarity, commitment, consistency and results.