Home / Opinion / Columns /  Middle managers keep firms going and deserve gratitude

For this year’s Thanksgiving in the US, it would have been appropriate to express gratitude for one oft-overlooked group: middle managers. They have had a tough couple of years.

Middle-bracket managers have been the ones balancing top management’s often-strident calls to return to the office against employees’ desire to maintain some level of work flexibility. They also have been the most hurt by the shift to hybrid or remote work: Time-use studies show that non-managers (i.e. regular workers) have largely been able to reclaim the long hours they once spent commuting for a mix of added work and personal pursuits. Middle managers, by contrast, saw their workdays get longer—by nearly an hour on average —as the demands of management-via-Zoom gobbled up time. No wonder this group reports the highest rate of post-pandemic burnout of workers at any level.

Not that their jobs were easy before the pandemic. Middle managers take the vision of senior leaders and figure out how to get employees to make it real. To do this well, they need to toggle between assertiveness (with their employees) and deference (toward their superiors), a kind of ‘vertical code switching’ that can be quite emotionally exhausting.

Non-management employees might earn less, but they have less responsibility and lower rates of stress. Senior managers have far bigger salaries and enjoy the benefits that come with greater power and autonomy. Middle managers get the headaches without fat pay cheques.

But their contributions are essential. A 2021 paper led by Jonas Hjort of Columbia University found that if companies in developing countries had a large, relatively affordable layer of management akin to that of US companies, their output would rise by a third.

Middle managers also have a disproportionate impact on talent retention as well. Research has confirmed the old saw that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses." Middle managers’ relationships with their employees are essential, for example, to making mergers work, according to research by Karen Van Dam of the Open University of the Netherlands. They also play a crucial role in getting employees to be innovative.

And somehow when the economy worsens, senior leaders often seem to think it’s the middle ‘layers’ that are expendable. “Middle management job cuts raise fears of US ‘white collar’ recession," a Financial Times headline declared earlier this month. Thanks for holding down the fort through the worst time to be a manager in decades, senior leaders seem to be saying, now here’s your severance package. This is myopic from a business perspective and speaks of poor ethics as well.

Middle managers deserve a lot better, starting with a proper thank you.

Behavioural science shows how important gratitude is—both for the receiver and the giver. We should all probably say ‘thank you’ at work more than we do; especially in an era of hybrid work, it won’t do to let things ‘go without saying’. One lesson I have taken from the work of social scientist Heidi Grant is that things need to go with saying: No one can read your mind.

But we tend to think that our intentions are obvious. We might take for granted that middle managers know how much we appreciate their efforts, but unless we’ve said ‘thank you’ to this lot recently, we are probably wrong.

And when someone is paid to do a job, perhaps the assumption is that thanks are unnecessary. This is a foolish approach. In one of the most-cited papers on workplace gratitude, by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Adam Grant of Wharton, the researchers found that even simple expressions of thanks have a profound impact on motivation and willingness to help. Fund-raisers, for example, made 50% more calls in the week after hearing ‘thank you’ than a control group of fund-raisers who were not thanked.

But gratitude doesn’t get a lot of room in the modern workplace. It’s sometimes seen as annoying—cluttering people’s in-boxes—to reply with a “Thanks!" Perhaps that is so brief—and perfunctory— that the message doesn’t really sink in.

But taking the time to express sincere and specific appreciation ought to always be welcome. Giving thanks can also be a subtle way of managing up. Years ago, I thanked a boss for sending me one email containing five requests rather than five emails each containing one request; it was more work for her, but made keeping track of her requests so much easier. She got the hint, and I got fewer emails.

Seen this way, thanking your boss might even be seen as a bit selfish, or motivated. But go ahead and thank them anyway. They won’t mind. 

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.

 

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