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Leadership at Risk: The healthiest cultures don’t just treat every employee as a leader. They treat every leader as an employee.
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PERSPECTIVE

 

Leaders are employees, too. This truth may sound obvious, but it is overlooked enough that mid-level managers are now in a state of severe distress. The various reasons include less recognition and multiplying responsibilities, but ultimately, at present, leaders’ work experiences are nowhere near as positive as those of their individually contributing colleagues. So what is the remedy? It starts with organisations adopting a more holistic view of employees and then prioritising inclusive change management, leader appreciation, and appropriate support. Those that do will significantly reduce burnout and improve their chances of surviving the Great Resignation with happier, more productive people in every position.

 

A graphic showing that odds increase by 18x that an organization's culture will thrive when leaders feel connected to their teams
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INTRODUCTION

 

During the pandemic, people relied on their elected and other government leaders to guide them through health and safety measures. Likewise, organisations 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 organisations 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:

  • Administrative—planning and budgeting, timecard approvals, etc.
  • Operational—managing projects, attending meetings, hitting deadlines, etc.
  • Management—performance reviews, one-to-one meetings, hiring, etc.
  • Leadership—coaching and mentoring, developing, connecting, building culture, wellbeing, retention, etc.
  • Strategic—innovating, planning, etc.
     

“Leadership is an active role; ‘lead’ is a verb. But the leader who tries to do it all is headed for burnout, and in a powerful hurry.”
—Bill Owens, Former Governor of Colorado

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 organisations give them more to do without the necessary support or resources to do it.

The fundamental reality is leaders are employees, too. Organisations 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 organisational 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 organisations won’t either.
 

“The largest part of my job has become logistic, trying to cater to everyone’s needs…It hasn’t been easy. That’s where a lot of my stress comes from. It’s not even [stress] from performing [the work of] my job, it’s just hearing about people’s events that are going on in their life or their family’s lives and then trying to accommodate those schedules so that we can all still stay on track.”
—Leader Focus Group Participant


LEADERS ARE STRETCHED THIN AND FACE NEW CHALLENGES IN THEIR ROLES

 

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.

A table showing the percentage of leaders who report spending more time on specific tasks
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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 organisation only cares about the bottom line (132%). When leaders have these perceptions, employees on their teams feel it, too.

LEADERS ALSO SUFFER FROM CONFLICTING RESPONSIBILITIES

 

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 organisation. 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 organisation 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.

A table showing how leaders feel to the organization when involved in conversations or decisions precipitating change
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Leaders feel responsible for the impact of the organisation’s choices and changes on employees, yet they aren’t always involved in the conversations or decisions precipitating those changes. Furthermore, organisations often treat leaders as messengers—the middlepeople who must enact changes—without giving them support, resources, or rationale.

A table showing the percentage of leaders who agree with specific statements
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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 organisation, there’s always a negative impact. And leaders feel it the most. To borrow a metaphor, leaders are the shock absorbers in an organisation, dampening forces from both above and below. This conflict takes a large toll on leaders’ wellbeing and the organisational culture.

A table showing the impact of role conflict on individual contributors and leaders
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“Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides. It must bring sides together.”
—Rev. Jesse Jackson, Political Activist


ROLE CONFLICTS AND TASK BURDENS MAKE MODERN LEADERSHIP MORE CHALLENGING

 

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.

A chart showing the three key connections leaders create for employees
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Figure 4. MODERN LEADERSHIP INDEX
The three key connections leaders create for employees.

A table showing the increase in difficulty of practicing modern leadership principles since early 2020
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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%.

Organisations 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 compensation is very important, intrinsic motivation and public recognition can be more important: knowing my work impacts the organisation, feeling that I’m significant, that people care for me and consider me as part of the larger organisation ecosystem. Recognition is something everyone wants.”
—Milind Apte, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, CEAT


RECOMMENDATIONS

 

To meet the challenges of increasing responsibilities and conflicting roles, organisations must support and appreciate their leaders better than they have.

 

1. Reduce stress and anxiety for all leaders


While organisations 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:

 

A table showing that modern leadership practices create several positive benefits
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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:

  • Anxiety (–67%)
  • Stress (–35%)
  • Engagement (+718%)
  • Purpose (+562%)
  • Opportunity (+637%)
  • Success (+748%)
  • Appreciation (+631%)
  • Wellbeing (+243%)
  • Thriving Culture (+1,691%)

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.

 

CASE STUDY—COMMITTING TO THE MIDDLE
 

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

 

2. Separate recognition from compensation


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 organisation. 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 organisation are dramatically more likely to be satisfied with the employee experience (+71x) and the organisation’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 recognise leaders in ways that have nothing to do with their paychecks. And communicate appreciation and the value they provide outside of salary discussions.

 

3. Recognise and appreciate leaders often


In most employee recognition strategies, leaders play the role of recognition givers, but as emphasised 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 recognise their leaders and leaders to recognise 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 organisations with a culture of integrated recognition, their odds of anxiety fall 38% and their odds of practicing modern leadership increase 248%.

 

A table showing the impact of satisfied psychological needs on cultural outcomes
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4. Consult with leaders on change management plans


Organisations 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 minimise their stress, anxiety, and burnout.

 

CASE STUDY—CREATING RECOGNITION CHAMPIONS


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—KEY TAKEAWAYS


Leaders are stressed and burned out due to expanding responsibilities and expectations.
 

Every leader also fills the role of an employee, which creates feelings of conflict.
 

Leaders need support and appreciation as much as any individual contributor.
 

Organisations should consult leaders early in their change management planning.


Leadership at Risk Sources

  1. “Managers Can’t Do It All,” Diane Gherson and Lynda Gratton, Harvard Business Review, March–April 2022.
  2. “What Leaders Should Focus on in 2022,” Jennifer Robison, Gallup, January 20, 2022.
  3. “Manager Burnout Is Only Getting Worse,” Jim Harter, Gallup, November 18, 2021.
  4. “Managers Can’t Do It All,” Diane Gherson and Lynda Gratton, Harvard Business Review, March–April 2022.
  5. 2020 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute
  6. 2022 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute
  7. O.C. Tanner Client Story

METHODOLOGY


The O.C. Tanner Institute uses multiple research methods to support the Global Culture Report, including interviews, focus groups, cross-sectional surveys, and a longitudinal survey.

Qualitative findings came from 10 focus groups and 81 interviews among employees and leaders of larger organisations. The groups and interviews were held throughout 2021 and 2022, each representing various types of employers, including both private and public entities.

Quantitative findings came from online survey interviews administered to employees across Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The total sample size was 36,441 workers at companies with 500+ employees. The O.C. Tanner Institute collected and analysed all survey data. This sample is sufficient to generate meaningful conclusions about the cultures of organisations in the included countries. However, because the study does not include population data, results are subject to statistical errors customarily associated with sample-based information.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from the O.C. Tanner Institute.

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