Every company has outstanding managers. These are the people who lead happy, productive teams, who easily motivate others and inspire innovation. They wear leadership like a comfortable sweater.

If you take a moment, you can probably name a few of these excellent managers in your organization.

And that’s the problem. There are only a few, and they are so rare, you can easily remember their names.

Study after study points to managers as the most influential factors in employee satisfaction and engagement. Managers have the power to inspire excellence or to cultivate distrust. They can produce outstanding employees and nurture new leaders, or they can spawn resentful clock-punchers.

They can also nullify corporate initiatives intended to create a positive workplace culture.

The Manager Is the Company

To employees, their manager represents the company. As such, your company’s managers control the success or failure of any program you create. Bad managers can undermine your hard work with a roll of the eyes or a derisive tone.

Or they can simply continue being bad managers. Because when a manager is abusive or arrogant, steals credit, ignores input, or doesn’t communicate well, initiatives like employer branding or employee development sound like so many pretty words.

Employees expect a company that genuinely cares about employee engagement to recognize the enormous power of front-line managers. They hope the company will have a means of identifying bad ones and improving them or moving them out. After all, it’s no secret among employees who the bad managers are, so why doesn’t the company know? But when a company fails to weed out poor managers, people understandably lose confidence in the leadership.

When employees don’t trust the company, well-intentioned initiatives underscore the wide gap between management’s words and employees’ experiences. To an employee, this looks and smells a lot like hypocrisy. And for programs designed to improve the company’s relationship with employees, this is a disastrous outcome.

As Gallup 3 has famously documented, American companies are filled with poor managers. Employee engagement hovers in the 30%-40% range 4 with little movement over the past several years. Given that this problem has deep roots in corporate culture, solving it can seem impossible.

Turning Things Around

There are five things companies can do now to start attacking this problem. Not all of them are easy, and the process will take time to ripple through a large organization. But if Gallup is right, the rewards will be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

  1. Stop using promotions to management as a reward for something else. The skills that make great individual contributors are at best irrelevant for managers, and at worst, they are destructive. Promoting an ambitious, overachieving employee proud to have risen above their teammates can create an arrogant, dismissive manager if those behaviors are not corrected.
    Someone who has spent a career focused on their personal success needs to understand how to derive satisfaction from their team’s accomplishments. This transition is not an easy or natural one for most people, so don’t promote high achievers into management and expect them to figure it out on their own.
  1. Stop looking exclusively at numbers. Numbers may be useful in determining many things, but management talent is not one of them. Structure goals and performance reviews around managerial skills, not just business outcomes. When you focus on skills in addition to results, you are setting the expectation that the manager can achieve results and not sacrifice good people management in the process. And if they do, they will understand it will not be tolerated.
    Use employee surveys to help determine the quality of your managers, but don’t rely on surveys exclusively. Employees who don’t trust the company don’t trust that their answers on surveys will be anonymous. You’ll need many more data points, some of which should come from unstructured conversations with employees.
  1. Realize management has more to do with character than knowledge. Successful managers all have certain traits that enable them to manage others well. These include small egos, self-confidence, willingness to share credit, empathy for one’s employees and bosses, the ability to stay focused on the business rather than one’s self, and many others.
    Look for management candidates who have a track record demonstrating these traits. Ask candidates and their references about these traits and have them provide examples of how the candidate has applied them.
  1. Create an onboarding or transition plan for all new managers. This must go well beyond the typical battery of training programs dealing with things like hostile workplaces and hiring discrimination. Obviously, those are essential, but new managers also need to know that the game has changed, that the skills that have taken them this far will not take them any farther unless they also learn how to manage well.
    They need to know the personal traits they must develop and how to apply them. They need to realize that not everyone has the capacity to become a good manager and that the company knows this too.
  1. Be willing to risk short-term results for long-term benefits and improved financial performance. When you dismiss a bad manager despite their good numbers, it may hurt for a little while, though that is certainly not a given. Installing a good manager will pay off relatively quickly. The team’s performance will improve, and you may discover that the team was really responsible for the good results all along.
    But there are other significant benefits. Well-run teams keep their focus on the business. They don’t generate complaints or lawsuits that eat at the bottom line while taking everyone’s attention off the product. Happy team members trust the company and their manager and will speak highly of both. Recruiting costs will drop, and retention will improve.

The Hard Part

Obviously, this will not be easy. Most managers, including most CEOs, have made it this far within the existing system, and they may not be willing to admit it has serious flaws. Hard-nosed (and hard-headed) executives in many corporate cultures may see this approach as “being soft.”

To turn these executives around, it may take a well-researched argument showing the financial and public image costs of bad managers.

HR should lead this effort, but it may take a team that cuts across functions to drive home the importance of creating better managers, then design and implement programs to find and nurture the good ones. This team must also figure out how to identify bad managers in the company and improve them or change their roles.

And every company needs to have a plan to reward high-performing individuals without promoting them into management.

Treating management as a perk rather than a profession has not served us well. It’s time to revamp our organizations to make the workplace better and the workforce more productive, innovative, and efficient.


This post first appeared on the SHRM Blog.

photo by Mark Freeth licensed under CC BY 2.0

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