Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

Small Things Make a Big Difference in Employee Engagement

Over the long term, respect is a more powerful lever than fear.

While there’s a natural tendency to want to “think big” in business, much effective management is actually the result of thinking small.

With complete respect for arguably the greatest advertising campaign ever (Doyle Dane Bernbach’s “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen from the 1950s), being able to ‘think small’ has real applicability for how managers relate to their employees on a day-to-day basis.

Fact: Employee surveys consistently show that the single most important factor in employee engagement is an employee’s relationship with his or her direct manager.

No thoughtful business person would argue that big, visionary, strategic thinking is unimportant to an organization. But the reality is such thinking is generally the province of an organization’s senior management. In the managerial trenches, however, where the vast majority of managers reside, the emphasis is on keeping operations moving, deadlines met, costs contained, and ‘trains running on time.’ Thus, the nature of the manager-employee relationship is often shaped less by strategic matters than by the myriad of small, moment-to-moment interactions that ultimately determine how an employee feels about his or her manager… and therefore the organization. This is the thread from which the cloth is made.

Given this context, here are five small, easy things managers can do – surprisingly often neglected – that can make a positive difference in a manager-employee relationship.

Return messages quickly. Simple and appreciated. Ignoring employee messages, or waiting a long time to respond, conveys, “Your issues aren’t important to me.” I once worked with a very knowledgeable senior executive who routinely took weeks to return messages, which he would then do thoroughly and thoughtfully. Of course by that time the original issue was either resolved, out of date or long forgotten.

Be on time for meetings. Similarly, chronic lateness sends the clear message, “My time is more important than yours.” Early in my career I reported to a VP who was always at least 20 minutes late for her own staff meetings… and that time quickly turned into a gripe session in which her capable but frustrated staff spent the wasted time discussing the manger’s shortcomings – unnecessarily undermining an otherwise capable leader.

Express appreciation for a job well done. The power of a sincere, well-timed thank you is significant. Again, this gesture is small, free, obvious – and often neglected.

Take a genuine interest in your employees. Learn some details about their lives outside of work. Outside problems shape inside performance. A small amount of honest interest concern will be appreciated and go a long way to building loyalty.

Be there. As fundamental as it gets. You can’t manage effectively if you’re not available. Keep an open door. Make yourself available for questions and problems as much as reasonably possible. While this may sound simple, the fact is, with numerous competing demands on a manager’s time, it’s easy to be distracted and irritated when questions arise. It’s a mindset of availability. Even a manager who’s on the road a lot but checks and returns messages promptly can effectively “be there” when physically distant.

 One concluding note: Such conscientious treatment is in no way an abdication of managerial authority. I always favored a considerate approach not because it was nice but because it was effective. Management isn’t a dinner party. In any organization, stuff needs to get done. All the time. On time. Every manager needs authority. But over the long term respect is a more powerful lever than fear. With a deadline looming and a project on the line, employees most readily give their all for a person they like and respect.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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You can follow Victor on Twitter for management-related news, tips and articles.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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