Can Bad Managers Be Saved?

Most companies have teams that consistently show poor employee engagement. In many cases, this can be traced back to managers with little or no talent for people management.

Yet it’s just not realistic to fire all of those managers. It’s also not necessary; although not every manager has the talent to be great, many can improve.

And efforts to help them improve are critical. Managers who don’t engage their teams create a source of frustration, rather than fulfillment, at work. The reality is that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged, and disengagement hurts company performance.

Gallup research shows that engaged employees, on the other hand, are more productive and have fewer sick days and accidents, as well as lower error rates. They also have more fun at work and are significantly less likely to experience burnout, suffer from depression and anxiety, or behave badly with their friends and family.

While engagement is not solely about the manager, the drivers of engagement tend to originate at the local level. This makes managers the best positioned to drive positive change. Indeed, centering change strategies on managers is smart, but those strategies require a solid understanding of the impact that dispiriting managers have on their people and the company’s performance.

Gallup engagement data can show a company its pockets of engagement problems — teams that most need intervention. And when the epicenter of low engagement is a manager who’s bad at people management, the reason is often one of the four below.

Reasons for Poor Management

Lack of knowledge (“I don’t know how.”): Most interventions focus on the manager’s accountability, but accountability without empowerment isn’t practical. Managers need development — training, learning opportunities and ongoing coaching — that focuses on basic management skills and interpreting employee feedback. They may not know how to start a dialogue or how to determine next steps. They may not fully understand that their responsibility for people management is as great as their responsibility for task management. And companies need to support — without punishing — managers as they learn how to better manage people. Most managers want to do a good job, but some of them just don’t know what to do.

Lack of belief (“I don’t believe in engagement.”): Managers who are unsure of the importance of engagement need qualitative and quantitative analysis to understand the effects of engagement. They need to hear engagement success stories. They need the value of engagement demonstrated for them.

But that’s not enough: Companies also need to encourage managers to act on the results of employee engagement surveys, and leading by example and role modeling can help. The leadership team needs to share their engagement survey results, their plans for improvement and, later, their achievements. This can help engage managers and create accountability.

Research shows that leaders who engage their direct teams will see those results cascade down as others emulate their behaviors. This should remind leaders to start working on their own engagement. The more engaged the top team members are, the better they can engage others.

Lack of talent (“I just cannot work with people.”): Some managers simply can’t manage people. A 2014 Gallup study in Germany helps explain why: When we asked managers why they believed they were hired for their current role, about half cited their expertise and tenure in their company or field (51%) or their success in a previous non-managerial role (47%).

This means the majority of managers are not placed in their jobs because they’ve demonstrated the talent to lead people intuitively or well.

Companies should select managers based on their ability to engage, care for and focus on each employee as an individual. The data provided by the engagement survey are designed to help managers reflect on their behaviors and work with their teams to create a more engaging environment. But they need leaders’ assistance, too.

Systemic barriers (“It’s outside of my control.”): If every night shift in every plant, for example, struggles with low levels of engagement regardless of location or manager, then the business may have a systemic barrier. The issue may be the shift, not the manager. Senior management is responsible for addressing systemic barriers and must deal with them before they hold managers solely accountable for disengagement. But even if systemic barriers are removed, some managers may not be able to engage their team members because they lack the knowledge, skills, belief or talent to optimize the performance of their employees.


The Damage Inflicted by Poor Managers

Managers who don’t know how to meet the engagement needs of their team become a barrier to employee, team and company performance.

And a disturbingly high percentage of managers around the world are not meeting the needs of their employees. Actively disengaged employees (24%) outnumber engaged employees (13%) by nearly 2-to-1, according to Gallup — implying that at the global level, work is more often a source of frustration than fulfillment.

Consistently low engagement can have a negative effect on company success. Teams with low engagement are less productive, less profitable and less likely to be loyal. This lack of loyalty to the company can cause turnover, which can cost businesses approximately 1.5 times the annual salary of every person who quits.

Obviously, the fewer poorly motivated teams and the more engaged teams a business has, the better. Compared with disengaged teams, engaged teams show 24% to 59% less turnover, 10% higher customer ratings, 21% greater profitability, 17% higher productivity, 28% less shrinkage, 70% fewer safety incidents and 41% less absenteeism.

When teams become more engaged, work feels very different for employees. But for that to occur, managers who lack an innate understanding of people management need assistance.

Getting to the Bottom of Engagement Problems

These four steps can help most companies get to the bottom of their engagement issues:

Understand the context. Managers who struggle to meet employees’ engagement needs often feel like they are faced with circumstances out of their control — such as volatile market conditions, limited labor supply or budget cuts.

If a team’s engagement suddenly drops, leaders should examine the manager’s work environment; conditions may improve with the right interventions. Seeing a job from the manager’s perspective can shed light on a team’s engagement issues and determine if there are true, systemic barriers facing the team or if the source of disengagement can be locally managed.

Context is always important — from the first engagement measurement on, leaders need to know why a team is engaged or disengaged. But if survey results show a sudden drop in engagement, leaders should be aware that something in the environment has drastically changed.

Encourage managers to ask for help. Few managers are taught how to engage employees, especially before the company starts measuring engagement. Further, most managers believe they are doing their jobs well and don’t see the need for change.

If managers who don’t know how to manage people don’t understand the effect of their behavior on team engagement, they can’t assess their own impact. And if their teams don’t have the opportunity to confidentially rate their managers via an employee engagement survey or other means, there’s no measurable or meaningful way for managers to evaluate their effectiveness. Managers may even be afraid to ask for help, for fear of appearing weak or ineffectual.

It’s better for businesses to encourage managers to get the support they need than for companies to continually suffer from disengagement. That support should go further than merely making managers aware of their engagement results — managers need a thorough understanding of engagement.

Provide real assistance to managers. Leaving managers to their own devices can create disengaged workplaces. Companies should offer tailored and intensive training, coaching, support and guidance to all managers.

Many companies measure engagement but offer a one-size-fits-all approach to managing it. It’s better to provide foundational development in the first year of an engagement initiative and train and coach each manager on specific people-management needs in subsequent years.

Lower-performing managers are going to need tailored strategies and more intensive support. Managers should not be punished for their own lack of training — and they shouldn’t have to figure out how to engage their employees on their own.

Make solid plans for improvement, or nothing will change. Engagement begins at the local level through managers’ initiatives, manager-to-manager support and organized classes led by human resources. Managers need to focus on local actions (such as managers committing to obtain the materials and equipment employees are missing) because that’s what sparks engagement.

Managers need to talk to their employees to gain a better understanding of what the team lacks. Then, they should follow up on action items and measure engagement improvements. Without measurement and action, no one can tell if things are really getting better.

Annamarie Mann contributed to the writing of this article.

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