The answer most often lies in managerial relationships. A recent national study by Dale Carnegie Training placed the number of “fully engaged” employees at 29%, and “disengaged” employees at 26% - meaning nearly three-quarters of employees are not fully engaged (aka productive). The number one factor the study cited influencing engagement and disengagement was “relationship with immediate supervisor.” While this is no surprise to those in the management business (and we all intuitively know that our attitude toward our boss has a major impact on our feelings about work), my interest here is not to delve into this recent study – but to probe a bit into why manager-employee relationships are so chronically problematic.
At enormous costs, it’s worth noting: The Bureau of National Affairs estimates U.S. businesses lose $11 billion annually due to employee turnover.
Why are these costly problems so persistent? My premise in this post is that the qualities companies traditionally look for when selecting and developing managers and executives are often not conducive to building positive, productive, engaged employee relationships.
To illustrate this, let’s consider some examples from my own experience.
As a relatively new manager (back in the Pleistocene Era), I was told on numerous occasions by senior management, “You just don’t seem like a manager. You just don’t seem like executive material.”
When I’d ask why, the answer would always be something along the lines of: “I don’t know… you just seem too quiet, too soft-spoken - not authoritative enough.”
To which I’d generally respond, “Don’t judge my personality – judge results. Do people like working for me? Am I able to deliver large projects successfully?”
Over time my own management came, for the most part, to accept my style. But my point in this article is not about me – like most in management I had my strengths and weaknesses, my good days and bad. Rather, it’s about what I observed in working with and for hundreds of other managers and executives over a long career. Put simply, the qualities commonly associated with management and leadership – being authoritative, decisive, forceful, perhaps somewhat controlling, if not moderated by a high degree of awareness as to how one comes across and is perceived by others, are also qualities that have the potential to easily alienate those on the receiving end. Most people chafe under too much authority, too much forcefulness, too much control.
So what qualities are more useful in fostering engaged, productive employees… in building positive manager-employee relationships? Almost without exception the most effective managers and executives I knew (in addition of course to possessing technical proficiency) shared these five – for lack of a better term – softer characteristics.
They were good listeners – less focused on imposing their own will than on hearing what others had to say.
They were perceptive – able to understand the sometimes subtle issues their direct reports were dealing with… as well as what motivated them and what didn’t.
They were open communicators – approachable, candid, easy to talk to, available when needed.
They were of calm demeanor - not prone to excitability, able to remain cool under stress. (Nothing erodes loyalty quicker than humiliation on the wrong end of a hot temper.)
They were genuinely concerned about their direct reports’ well-being – men and women of integrity who cared about their employees and could be trusted to keep their word.
Let me be clear: I’m no Management Pollyanna. I’m not advocating just being “a nice guy.” You can’t be - and still do your job. You can’t be a conflict avoider. You have to be willing to make difficult decisions. As Chairman Mao once put it, “Revolution is not a dinner party.” Nor is management - it’s a tough, often painful business. And to be sure, other macro-level factors beyond personal relationships contribute to employee disengagement as well: layoffs, reorganizations and benefit cuts to name a few - the myriad of insecurities associated with working for companies under constant financial pressure in a fragile economy.
But as the Dale Carnegie study showed yet again, “relationship with immediate supervisor” remains the number one factor, the lead dog.
When companies are concerned about turnover, productivity, and chronically high levels of employee disengagement, they need to look thoughtfully at how they’re selecting and training their managers.
They need to look thoughtfully at the type of people they’re placing in these critical roles, and how they relate to others.
This is the fabric of day-to-day business life. This is the thread from which the cloth is made.
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