During the pandemic, people relied on their elected and other government leaders to guide them through health and safety measures. Likewise, organizations looked to their leaders to help employees navigate crisis, uncertainty, and change.
We expect a lot from our superiors. But we rarely question their wellbeing. We seldom ask how they’re holding up, or what toll the series of simultaneous challenges have taken on them.
Gartner finds only 14% of companies deliberately attempt to ease their leaders’ burdens.1 While most organizations are focused on the employee experience and engaging and retaining employees, they appear to have overlooked the majority of their managers, a crucial portion of their employee populations.
Additionally, leaders have taken on much more work over the last two years. Responsibilities now transcend managing employees’ job performance and hitting KPIs to include handling employee wellbeing and inclusion, managing remote and hybrid teams, and hiring and retaining employees in the Great Resignation.
A current breakdown of the tasks expected of leaders:
Gallup reports that in this new era of work, “the staggeringly high quit rate means many managers are doing more with less, and less, and less. It takes a toll.”2 Leaders are burning out as organizations give them more to do without the necessary support or resources to do it.
The fundamental reality is leaders are employees, too. Organizations may mistakenly assume managers have endless capacity to take on personnel and company demands. Or that because they’re paid more, they should be able to weather the storms and burdens that come with the job. But leaders are not immune to stress and fatigue. Like anyone, they need reinforcement, appreciation, and balance. Without these things, no amount of pay will decrease burnout; in fact, the higher salaries and pressure that come with leadership positions can make it worse.
Leaders are vital to the organizational community. They build and shape culture, and they create a sense of belonging, connection, and purpose for their people. Unfortunately, the recognition they receive is not proportional.
It’s time to step up and help them thrive. Because when leaders don’t thrive, their employees, teams, and organizations won’t either.
With numerous new responsibilities and expectations placed on them, many leaders are succumbing to stress and burnout. According to our data, leaders are 43% more likely to say work is interfering with their ability to be happy in other areas of their lives.
And burnout among mid-level managers, in particular, is getting worse. Gallup reports that while stress, anxiety, and diagnosed depression declined in 2021 for individual contributors and high-level leaders, it increased for managers.3
It’s a trend employees can confirm. Nearly three fourths (70%) of individual contributors in our surveys report their managers are possibly or definitely stressed.
Just under two thirds (61%) of leaders report having more general responsibilities at work since before the pandemic, versus only one third (34%) of individual contributors who say the same. The largest increases appear in the areas of assigning work, scheduling employees, adapting to changing policies (presumably due to the pandemic), and hiring and training new employees.
This increase in responsibilities negatively impacts leader wellbeing and engagement, as well as overall culture. The odds of high anxiety increase 21% among leaders with increased task responsibilities, which increases the odds of burnout 520% and hurts the odds of engagement by 51%.
More anxiety also increases the odds that leaders will feel their jobs compromise their ability to be happy (246%) and that their organization only cares about the bottom line (132%). When leaders have these perceptions, employees on their teams feel it, too.
At work, leaders play two roles: one is that of a manager, accountable for employees; the other is the role of an employee, accountable to the organization. These distinct but overlapping roles can present conflicts and challenges in how they carry out their responsibilities.
Leaders may feel torn at times between a loyalty to their organization and a commitment to their people—not to mention their own needs as employees. The increase in leaders’ new and different job expectations complicates these competing identities and exacerbates the conflict.
Leaders feel responsible for the impact of the organization’s choices and changes on employees, yet they aren’t always involved in the conversations or decisions precipitating those changes. Furthermore, organizations often treat leaders as messengers—the middlepeople who must enact changes—without giving them support, resources, or rationale.
On the other side, leaders are expected—and feel obligated—to fulfill the needs of employees. But while 79% of leaders think they have a “good sense” of what their employees want, only 48% of employees agree. Nearly one third (29%) of employees say there is a notable conflict between what their managers want and what their coworkers want, and only a little more than half (54%) believe their managers are “on my side.”
When the needs of employees conflict with the demands of the organization, there’s always a negative impact. And leaders feel it the most. To borrow a metaphor, leaders are the shock absorbers in an organization, dampening forces from both above and below. This conflict takes a large toll on leaders’ wellbeing and the organizational culture.
Leaders’ increased responsibilities and conflicting roles compromise their ability to practice modern leadership skills.
To clarify, modern leaders are collaborative and focused on coaching, developing, and empowering people to do great work, rather than gatekeeping, commanding, and evaluating. These types of leaders connect employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another in ways that build thriving teams.
Figure 4. MODERN LEADERSHIP INDEX
The three key connections leaders create for employees.
Modern leadership can be difficult, even in the best environments. Our research finds only 17% of leaders are modern leaders.
And since the beginning of the pandemic, entry-level and mid-level leaders have struggled more than senior-level leaders to practice modern leadership.
Why is this the case when the research shows senior leaders have more role conflicts and increased burdens than entry- and mid-level leaders? The simple answer is less support and appreciation. Mid- and entry-level leaders are 33% and 47% less likely to feel appreciated, respectively, compared to senior leaders. They also don’t have as much access to resources and support as senior leaders do.
With support, resources, and appreciation, senior-level leaders can manage role conflicts and take on additional responsibilities while still practicing modern leadership skills. But because entry-level leaders do not have the same support and appreciation, they are more easily consumed by their role conflicts and increased tasks.
Interestingly, leaders often say they don’t need recognition. A full third (37%) of them claim their salary makes recognition unnecessary. (Only 23% of individual contributors feel this way.) But that number paints an incomplete, inaccurate picture because, as we’ve already called out, leaders are employees, too. They need to feel valued, appreciated, and supported like everyone else. A compelling counterfinding: Appreciation reduces leaders’ anxiety by 67% and stress by 52%.
Organizations frequently forget or ignore the needs of leaders. However, in the new era of work, it’s imperative they rally to help the people who are piloting them into the future.
While organizations may not be able to remove the new tasks required of their leaders, they can provide more support and better leadership strategies. Modern leadership benefits everyone, and leaders need to experience it as much as any employee. When this happens, the odds of several positive outcomes increase:
Build connections for all levels of leaders and help them feel a sense of belonging—that they’re an important part of their work community and not merely a mediator for employees. When leaders feel inclusion, the odds of anxiety fall 25%. And when they have a strong connection to their teams, their sense of wellbeing, as well as their perceptions of the culture improve substantially:
Include leaders in your employee experience strategy. Don’t forget about their experiences when you think about all employees. And remember to include leaders at all levels, not just those in senior leadership positions.
While most companies spend resources on senior-leader development and support, Standard Chartered, a retail bank in the UK with 750 branches in over 50 countries, decided to focus on middle managers as key figures in its growth. The bank wanted to create a sense of managerial community.
So, it built an accreditation process that focused on developing leadership skills such as building trust, aligning teams, and making bold decisions. The executive team strengthened the sense of community by taking the challenges these mid-level leaders faced and making them a priority for the entire company. It also implemented a new coaching platform to build a deep coaching culture, vital for modern leadership. All of these efforts have boosted leaders’ skills, confidence, and sense of connection and community at work.4
Leaders need to feel valued and appreciated—even if they say they don’t.
Increasing pay or providing bonuses and incentives does not convey appreciation like true recognition does. Likewise, compensation doesn’t prevent or lessen burnout. Plus, a lack of appreciation can make burnout worse. Case in point: A reduction in giving and receiving recognition increases the odds of burnout by 45% and 48%, respectively.5
Genuine recognition includes things like a deliberate thank-you, spontaneous praise, or a more formal award. It’s given in a personal and sincere way for both effort and achievement. And it communicates to leaders that they and their work are seen.
Recognition also ensures leaders feel connected in ways compensation and incentives can’t duplicate. While compensation and incentives often create competition among leaders, appreciation connects and strengthens the relationships leaders have with their teams, their own leaders, and the organization. And, as we discussed in last year’s report, these strong connections help people—including leaders—thrive. For example, those who feel a strong connection to their leader, team(s), and organization are dramatically more likely to be satisfied with the employee experience (+71x) and the organization’s culture (+37x), and much less likely to experience burnout (–96x).6
Make sure your recognition efforts are not associated with compensation. Provide opportunities and tools to recognize leaders in ways that have nothing to do with their paychecks. And communicate appreciation and the value they provide outside of salary discussions.
In most employee recognition strategies, leaders play the role of recognition givers, but as emphasized previously, they must be the recipients, as well. In our research, 65% of leaders admit receiving more recognition from the people who report to them would improve their experience at work.
Encourage employees to recognize their leaders and leaders to recognize their peers. Provide the tools, training, and reminders to help ensure recognition flows in all directions.
Managers need appreciation for everyday effort, formal recognition for accomplishments, and celebrations for career anniversaries, which means employees have plenty of opportunities. When leaders work in organizations with a culture of integrated recognition, their odds of anxiety fall 38% and their odds of practicing modern leadership increase 248%.
Organizations often roll out new initiatives or programs without involving leaders, which can put them in potentially frustrating positions. It’s much better to have a robust change management plan for new programs that not only includes leaders in communicating the changes, but also consults with them before making any final decisions. When leaders play an active part in determining changes, they’re much more likely to understand and back them.
Also, be conscious of how a change may impact leaders’ responsibilities. Will it add to their workload? Is a new tool or technology part of their existing workflow? Does it improve their employee experience? Will they need additional training?
Communicate what they should expect and how it will affect them. Give them resources to manage the change. And check in with them regularly. Modern leaders will step up and guide their teams, but providing them with information, support, and appreciation will help them do it more effectively and minimize their stress, anxiety, and burnout.
BDO, a Canadian accounting and professional services firm, needed its 700+ partners (leaders of the firm) and their employees to feel more valued. And knowing the partners would be essential to the success of any new recognition initiative, the firm approached them first at its annual partners meeting.
There, the partners learned about the new vision and values and had the chance to contribute to the change-management plan. Following that, BDO held a live webcast for all partners, directors, senior managers, and other leaders so they could experience a new online recognition program before rolling it out to the entire company.
Providing context and inviting leader participation paid off. The first year after launch, scores for “I received appropriate recognition beyond pay and benefits for my contributions and our accomplishments” in the national office went up by 19%, while manager engagement for all regions overall improved by 10%.7
Leadership at Risk Sources
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