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The Great Resignation: When the Unflappable Manager…Flaps

by Mark Scullard, Wiley’s Senior Director of Innovation and Research

Here’s what we know to be true: The Great Resignation is taking a toll on managers.

With the job market full of uncertainty and quality workers hard to find, managers are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. While many organizations have invested in stress reduction resources to address the impact of today’s volatile workplace conditions, most of these initiatives are generalized, meaning they can apply to anyone in an organization.

Although that’s a good thing, Wiley’s survey of over 4,937 working professionals (Wiley, December 2021) found that managers and leaders often have a unique set of needs that differ from individual contributors. We’re going to break down what those unique needs are and what you can you do right now to ensure that your managers don’t become another statistic in The Great Resignation.

The Great Resignation, characterized by a mass exodus of workers, continues to leave the ever-changing workplace in chaos. As we enter another year of the pandemic, organizations continue to face unprecedented staffing issues, placing teams in a constant state of flux. In fact, we saw that a whopping 89% of survey respondents experienced some sort of team shift in the past year, such as the loss or addition of a team member, transferring to a new team, or a change in manager.

With the majority of these respondents experiencing at least two team shifts, it’s no wonder that work-induced stress is running rampant. As workers continue to prioritize flexibility and work/life balance more than ever before, many organizations will continue to face elevated levels of team instability and issues in recruiting and maintaining workers.

The constantly evolving nature of teams places organizations in a precarious position as they attempt to maintain productivity while simultaneously managing the ever-growing issue of team instability.

Survey respondents who have experienced a shift in their teams are more likely to rate their stress levels as higher than individuals who haven’t. Unsurprisingly, managers reported the highest stress ratings and were thus identified as the most affected group. Managers everywhere are being overworked and understaffed, leading to high levels of burnout and fatigue.

While many organizations have invested in stress reduction resources for their workers, most of these initiatives place heavy emphasis on the needs of individual contributors and often overlook the unique needs of managers. As resignation rates continue to climb with many mid-level workers leading the charge, organizations, more than ever, need to better support their managers in order to retain them.


When we asked respondents what type of resources their organization offers, the majority indicated having access to: greater flexibility in terms of when and where they work (71%), listening sessions with leaders (71%), employee recognition initiatives (64%), and access to virtual counseling or support (58%).

While both managers and individual contributors had roughly equal access to these resources, the impact of reducing work-related stress for managers was lower than that for individual contributors. Though the direct cause for this difference remains unclear, we think that the complexity and workload of a managerial role is preventing managers from accessing these resources.

For example, while an organization may offer flexibility for employees in terms of when and where they work, managers may still be expected to incorporate office visits or in-person meetings as a function of their role. Managers may also be expected to take on additional work to either compensate for the loss of workers or help employees manage their own workload needs.

As a result, managers may simply not have the time to use stress management resources. Further, it’s possible that managers may even actively avoid utilizing these resources for fear of being perceived, by both peers and superiors, as ineffective or incapable of managing the pressures of their work.

The unique circumstances that managers face when dealing with team shifts emphasizes the need for organizations to develop better strategies to help them. Not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered:

  1. Offer managers a safe space to talk about work-related stress.
    The majority of surveyed managers identified listening sessions to be the second most impactful resource in helping them reduce work-related stress. Additionally, they noted that opportunities to share and reflect on challenges with their peers would be helpful in building a sense of camaraderie, learning new stress management strategies, and become more confident in opening up when they need help.

  2. Recognize your managers.
    Managers need to be recognized too. Respondents ranked employee recognition initiatives as the third most impactful resource in helping them reduce work-related stress. When we cross-tabbed stress and recognition, we found that respondents who had access to employee recognition initiatives had lower overall stress ratings that respondents who did not. This data reiterates what we already know: people do their best work when they feel respected, valued, and appreciated for their contributions.

  3. Train your managers.
    Becoming a manager is a learned skill and it’s your job to help them learn it. When asked about additional resources they would want, managers requested tools to support some common organizational conflicts, such as poor communication, lack of alignment, and issues with team collaboration. Overall, they want to learn how to bring out the best in their people, and even more, help their employees learn the soft skills necessary to function as a successful team.

As we enter another new year amidst an ongoing pandemic, it has become critical to place emphasis on supporting managers in reducing work-related stress. When organizations make the effort to provide managers with tailored resources, they strengthen an organization’s capacity to

The Evolving Leadership Landscape

We’ve all experienced a variety of leaders over the course of our careers. In fact, many of us have held formal leadership positions. Consider the current workplace – what qualities come to mind when you think about “leadership?” If you were asked to think of qualities or skills associated with leadership 10 years ago, would you have given the same answer? Probably not. The traditional view of leadership as a fixed “one-size-fits-all” approach has evolved to a more agile approach that flexes to meet the needs of the situation and players. In our survey, we found perspectives are shifting about how leadership is viewed. We asked our survey respondents what came to mind when they heard the word, “leadership.” Here are some of the common words they shared.

As you can see, people expect leadership to be collaborative and people focused. Nowhere does it say “authoritative,” or “charismatic” – words we might have expected to see 10 years ago. But if our expectations of leadership have changed, have we also changed the way we view emerging leaders?

Leadership at Every Level

When asked, nearly 82% of respondents said they considered themselves a leader, with 62% of individual contributors viewing themselves as a leader. The data suggests that how people view themselves at work has expanded beyond formal title. As such, we asked participants to rank the ideal qualities they want in a leader.

What’s interesting about these three qualities is that they can be found at every level; they are not limited to roles or positions. Effective communication is critical in all roles, everyone is capable of building relationships, and all employees should understand the organization’s vision.

Why does this matter? By thinking about leadership as behaviors that can be learned, we can focus on ways to create opportunities for all employees to gain experience and build the skills to be a leader. If we have a better understanding of the desired behaviors, we can do a better job of preparing leaders to learn and practice the skills. We can also shift our perspective from viewing leadership as a formal designation to a more holistic view where anyone can be a leader. This is the concept of “leadership at every level.” You may have heard of the concept, but what does it really mean? Here’s how our respondents perceived “leadership at every level.”

We define “leadership at every level” as empowering employees to perform at their best in their current role by creating a sense of ownership and accountability in their work and the work of the organization. It doesn’t mean that employees must hold a formal leadership role but rather take ownership of their work and seek opportunities to grow. In essence, leadership at every level is creating a culture of empowered employees.

For those who view themselves as leaders, how are they showing leadership in their current role? More than a third cited coaching others, sharing innovative ideas, being accountable, and seeking feedback on their performance as ways they currently demonstrate leadership. When we think of the outcome of these behaviors, the impact becomes clear: Leadership at every level creates an organization where employees feel included, valued, and heard.

Creating a Culture of Leadership at Every Level

It’s a commonly accepted principle that achieving a work environment where employees feel included, valued, and heard—while good for people—is also good for business. Our research supported this principle with 98% of our respondents saying that when they feel valued by their employer, they feel ownership in their work, are more productive and motivated, and feel like they are contributing to the success of the organization. So, if leadership at every level is a worthy pursuit, our next question must be this: How do organizations create a culture of leadership at every level?

Not surprisingly, creating a culture of leadership starts with the evaluating the values, systems, and people processes that fuel your culture. At the organizational level, building systems that promote transparency, consistency, role clarity, and trust is the foundation for positive organizational culture. At the employee level, this can be done by creating a psychologically safe environment that encourages inclusion, collaboration, collegiality, connectedness, and innovative thinking among all employees. This improves culture by strengthening relationships, increasing effective communication, and building trust within the workplace.

Creating the conditions where employees feel empowered to lead, while a great first step, is only half the equation. Tangible results happen when organizations also invest in each employee’s development and success as a leader.

The investment should start early through embedded opportunities to build leadership skills for all employees. We shared earlier that 62% of individual contributors view themselves as a leader, yet our research found that only 28% of individual contributors said they have received leadership training. In comparison, almost 60% of respondents in leadership roles reported receiving leadership training. What’s clear in these numbers is that there are gaps in our leadership development programs. Given that leadership isn’t an innate characteristic, but a skill honed with time and practice, organizations have a great opportunity to get people working on their leadership skills for today and the future.

Consider whether your organization currently offers leadership skills training for all employees. If not, this is one way to build a culture of leadership at every level by offering training across roles, which will positively affect the success of the organization.

The bottom line is that investing in your employees benefits the individual and organization. According to our survey results, employees, regardless of role, felt strongly that leadership training at every level would empower employees, strengthen relationships, and build deeper connections. Notice any similarities? It’s the power of leadership at every level. When people feel empowered, they are more likely to be connected to the work, stay at the company, and work toward the success of the organization.


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