A lot of responsibility is laid at the door of managers when it comes to looking out for their employees – they are asked to support individuals with job performance, professional development, career progression, and even wellbeing. Many employees actively rely on their manager for advice, guidance and support in these areas and, assuming a manager is effective in their role, the individual will go on to make significant progress thanks to this input. But is there the same level of support available for these managers? In some organisations the answer will undoubtedly be ‘yes’, but this is certainly not the case in every workplace.

The challenge is that, often, the further you progress up the chain of management, the greater the distance between you and your own line-manager becomes. As a junior employee you will normally have a lot of direct contact with your manager, but this tends to decline as you move up the ranks. This is, in part, due to the fact that as a more senior member of staff you are expected to have a greater level of competence in your role, meaning less direct supervision is required, and more autonomy can be offered. Plus as you progress in rank you will normally be managed by someone even more senior, and both you and they will have increased levels of responsibility and probably work-load, which means that regular contact may become challenging, especially if your manager is not physically present in your workplace on a frequent basis. Therefore, the higher up the chain you go the less contact you are likely to have with your direct line-manager, so if you are a manager who is struggling who do you turn to?

Theoretically there should be multiple different support mechanisms in place to help managers deal with any stressors, concerns, or queries: peer support, their own line manager or even HR. But this isn’t always so straightforward in reality; as highlighted above the practicalities of seeking support from a line-manager of someone at this level makes it challenging, and although HR are available, it would not necessarily be the most appropriate place to turn for the more mundane or personal issues. Finding peer support at this level is also difficult, as your ‘peers’ are likely to be individuals of a similar status as yourself, and fixing time to discuss issues is far from easy, particularly if your peers work in different locations or departments.

The importance of positive employee-manager relationships

From a purely logistical angle, the people best placed to support this group are actually their direct reports, but is it appropriate for employees to support their line-managers in the same way their managers do for them? For mid-level managers in particular, this approach may be beneficial as employees tend to work relatively closely with their line-managers at this level, and have regular contact, which means they are likely to have a better appreciation of how their manager is coping. They will also traditionally work in the same department or subject area, so will have insight into any overarching challenges or concerns being faced in the work context. In this respect encouraging employees to support their manager makes sense, and means managers potentially have swift and regular access to someone who understands their situation to some degree. Research from Norway has also found that managers who enjoy a positive relationship with their employees suffer from lower levels of stress at work, demonstrating the powerful impact a good relationship between employees and managers can have.

That’s great news for managers who are able to build that level of rapport with employees. However, senior leaders will typically not have regular contact with any one specific group or individual who could offer this level of support, whether that is their direct reports, peers, or their own manager. A further challenge is that managers are given specific training and guidance on how to support their employees with regards to performance, professional development, and even wellbeing; in most organisations this is considered a core element of management development. Non-managerial employees will not normally receive this training, so arguably cannot be expected to offer such a robust level of intervention and support. However, the larger challenge is a pervading culture in many organisations that promotes a degree of segregation between employees and their managers. This segregation is usually in a bid to ensure fairness for employees, by reducing any potential favouritism of certain individuals, unfortunately it also creates a divide between employees and managers. As a result, whether intentional or not, a lot of businesses have an established hierarchical culture, which may make it uncomfortable for employees to offer any significant support to their manager. There is also the possibility that employees may not even consider the need for managers to receive any support. Managers are commonly encouraged to present themselves in such a way as to appear in control and collected in all situations, meaning employees may be unaware of the issues their manager faces. Senior managers, in particular, are often marketed to the wider business as being infallible, and immune to the stress of their roles, despite an instinctive awareness that this is far from the case.

Part of this desire to create separation between managers and employees is perhaps due to concern that sharing feelings of stress or overwhelm with direct reports may then place additional stress on to them. But there may also be a belief that by admitting to their worries, managers are inadvertently undermining the respect their reports have for them. Unfortunately, all of this does not change the fact that all managers will need support at some point in their career. Managers may have extra training, skills, and experience under their belt, but they are still only human. They will face the same stressors, both at work and personally, that their employees do, but often without an adequate network available to support them.

 It takes a business to support a manager

Having an effective management team is vital for an organisation to succeed, but this cannot occur unless managers within the organisation have adequate support throughout their careers support that covers all angles including performance, wellbeing, and progression. The ideal solution for this challenge would be a culture of cross-workforce support; it should not matter who in a team or organisation is facing difficulties, support should be readily available from all areas of the business. It should not be the sole responsibility of the individual’s manager, occupational health, HR, or anyone else to help a colleague who is in need. However, for many organisations this approach would likely require a significant shift in the organisational culture; away from one that draws a line between managers and their direct reports, towards a culture of genuine cohesion, collaboration and support at all levels and between all areas of the business.

Such a momentous change in the way individuals interact with and support one another would certainly not be an overnight change, and would likely require huge adjustments in policies, processes and most importantly, mind-sets. Change on this scale is, of course, highly complex, but that fact should not prevent it from happening. Even relatively simple steps such as an audit of the current landscape and culture could be enough to initiate widespread change. Questions to ask include: do your managers (and the rest of the workforce) feel they get adequate support and intervention? If so, where is this coming from (e.g. their own manager, their peers, co-workers or direct reports?) Would they like to see any changes in how support is provided? These sound like relatively simple questions, but the insight the answers provide could help light the way forward. It may be the results indicate that you are already succeeding in providing a highly supportive, collaborative, and nurturing environment for your managers, in which case little may need to be amended. However, results may also reveal that there is significant work to be done in order to reach this point and this is where further investigation is required to understand the root cause of the issue, and also how to address it most effectively. The only way to know is to ask.

No one solution will be applicable to every business, but considering the potential positive impact it could have on the wellbeing of managers, and consequently the effect it could have on employee performance and business outcomes, being considerate of who’s taking care of your managers is an issue organisations need to be mindful of.

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