Rethinking the Role of Manager

Does your boss often get in the way of helping you be more productive? This is not entirely his or her fault as many organizational structures are based on an outdated incentive mentality that can actually be detrimental in today’s workplace.

The workplace has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Secretaries are scarce, the metallic sound of office machinery is replaced by electronic tones of pagers and cell phones, and—rather than conversing around the water cooler—we are more likely to be texting or using social networks as a way to interact with others.

How we manage other people, however, has remained the same.

The role of manager varies depending on the industry and nature of the work, but when it comes to supervising others, there is very often conflict and disharmony.

In a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Value of Bosses” by Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn L. Shaw and Christopher T. Stanton, supervisors were found to have an enormous impact—good or bad—on productivity.

Among their findings, nearly 75% of all employees say their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job. And 65% of employees say they would take a new boss over a pay raise.

The same study determined it is not what these bosses do, but what they don’t do that makes them so bad. This includes 1) failing to inspire; 2) accepting mediocrity; 3) lacking clear vision and direction; 4) inability to be collaborate and be a team player; 5) failing to walk the talk.

It turns out that the best bosses are actually teachers, and the report stated that teaching accounts for 67% of a boss’s effect on employees’ productivity.

What if your manager was focused on teaching and encouraging your intrinsic motivation to enable you to be more productive and happier in the process?

Too often motivation throughout many companies is based on the carrot and stick approach. For all but a very few types of manufacturing jobs or those requiring mechanical skills, however, this approach has been scientifically proven not to work. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to productivity.

So why is there so much time and money spent on extrinsic incentives in order to get employees to work harder? Extrinsic incentives include things like a high salary, bonus, stock options, and generous benefits, which are often what attract employees in the first place. However, it is the intrinsic incentives such as interesting work, flexible time on when and where to do the work, ROWE or results only work ethic, 20% time to follow interests, etc. that keep employees motivated and highly productive.

According to author Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation is absolutely required and his model includes three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives; mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters; and purpose is the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.

Workers today face challenges that require right-brained, creative, and/or conceptual thinking. This “outside the box” thinking cannot be incentivized through conventional external means, but instead requires internal motivation.

Intrinsic nature means the job’s core responsibilities and you’re being paid to do something you find satisfying, says Timothy Judge, Mendoza’s Franklin D. Schurz Professor of Management.

After conducting a hundred job-satisfaction studies, Judge says he’s never found one where the intrinsic nature of the work itself wasn’t the most important predictor of overall job satisfaction.

So what if a manager’s role was not to incentivize, scold, or threaten those he or she manages, but instead to teach, inspire, and support the employee’s need for autonomy, mastery and purpose? This new role for manager would look a lot more like a coach, mentor or teacher who is in service of raising the level of productivity of others.

In this way the workplace could be less hostile and more cooperative, less competitive and more collaborative. Managers could contribute to the workplace environment in a way that creates higher employee engagement and greater productivity. And that would be good for any organization.

Engaged Employees Make all the Difference

Is employee engagement really important or is it just nice to have and something to think about once economic times improve?

The fact is companies with a high percentage of engaged employees are more profitable than those with fewer engaged workers. High engagement can improve employee retention and raise customer perceptions that directly lead to better financial performance.

Overall, most companies have about one-third of their employees fully engaged in their work. Yet recent surveys suggest that as many as four out of five workers would leave their current job if they could, but most think they would have trouble finding another one right now.

Engaged employees are those who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work. Those who are not engaged are satisfied but are not emotionally connected to their workplace and are less likely to put in extra effort. Those who are actively disengaged are emotionally disconnected from the work and workplace and jeopardize the performance of their teams. Their physical health may also be at risk.

A recent Gallup survey found that in the average big company only 33% of employees describe themselves as fully engaged in their work, 49% say they are not engaged and 18% say they are actively disengaged.

Gallup’s research found there is a strong relationship between engagement and high-performance outcomes which include customer loyalty, profitability, productivity, turnover, safety incidents, shrinkage, absenteeism, patient safety incidents, and quality (defects). They also learned that organizations with a high percentage of engaged employees have nearly four times the earnings per share growth rate compared to organizations in the same industry with lower enagement.

In what Gallup calls world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged workers to actively disengaged workers is about 10:1. Whereas in average organizations, the ratio of engaged workers to actively disengaged workers is about 2:1.

All too often, employee engagement is viewed as an HR initiative to improve morale among employees when things aren’t going so well. These intiatives do little to raise the level of employee engagement, and sometimes they even undermine it. That’s because employee engagement is distinctively different from employee satisfaction, motivation and organizational culture.

In the best companies employee engagement is a strategic approach for driving improvement that is directly linked to achieving corporate goals and organizational change. It can lead to employees who are more emotionally attached, involved and fully commited to their organizations. And it can profoundly increase productivity.

Employee engagement should be an organization-wide effort, and so much of its execution is dependent on good managers. As I wrote about in a previous post, employees join an organization based on the reputation of the company or the quality of its products or service. But they most often leave because of their manager.

In a down economy when hiring is stagnant and organizations are trying to get the most out of the people they already have, managers can engage employees in many ways. This includes clarifying expectations, providing adequate resources, giving recognition, encouraging their professional development, helping them connect to the organization’s purpose, and measuring and discussing progress more often than once each year.

Managers who do these as part of an overall employee engagement strategy are more likely to produce high-quality work and retain employees.

At a time with high unemployment, stagnant wages and workers staying in their jobs only because they fear they cannot find something better, it is the perfect time to execute an employee engagement strategy to energize your people.

In most organizations employees are the biggest expense and, far and away, the greatest asset. Now is the time to invest in a strategy that will raise the number of fully engaged employees and increase your profitability. You’ll be glad you did both now and when the economy improves.

Prepare to Hire the Right People

At a time when the stock market is a frightful roller coaster ride, consumer confidence is extremely low and the US unemployment is over nine percent, it may seem silly to talk about hiring again. But things will improve and you need to be prepared for when it does.

In Jim Collins’ seminal book Good to Great, he stated: “Get the right people on the bus. Get the wrong people off the bus. And then get the right people in the right seats on the bus.” Everything begins and ends with the right people doing the right jobs at the right time.

So just how do you hire the right people? How do you ensure that at a time of high unemployment you sort through the many potential candidates and get the best possible employee?

In most businesses the people you employ are your most important asset. They make or sell your product or service, and they determine whether you are successful or not. Therefore, hire winners. Hire people who are smart, hard working, ambitious and nice to be around.

Be certain you know exactly what it is you’re looking for. Commit this to paper and circulate it to everyone likely to work with this person. Ask for advice and comments from everyone on your team. Make sure you have thought beyond the knowledge and skills of your current people to include all the qualities you are seeking in an ideal candidate.

In Full Engagement: Inspire, Motivate, and Bring Out the Best in Your People, author Brian Tracy suggests the Law of Three in Hiring. He says this technique can increase the quality of your hires to a 90 percent success rate.

The Law of Three in Hiring

  • Interview Three Candidates – Choosing at least three candidates to interview can give you three different perspectives on the kind of people who are available. Don’t underestimate how powerful this can be in helping you identify the right fit.
  • Interview Three Times – Interview the person you like at least three times because with each interaction you will see another side of the person to evaluate. You may also learn further details or discrepancies in the stories the candidate reveals about his or her experience.
  • Select Three Different Meeting Places – This is helpful because people are subject to the “chameleon effect” and often change their personality when you move them around. Meet the candidate in a coffee shop or restaurant to see them in a more relaxed and public setting. You will see different sides of their personality that may be admirable or not so admirable.
  • Have Three Different People Interview the Candidate – This is especially important for the people who will be working directly with the candidate. And be sure to take their feedback seriously when making your decision. Ideally, you’ll want 100 percent agreement on who to hire.

Most importantly take your time in making a decision. This is currently an employer’s market and you have the luxury of taking time for fact checking the resume, contacting references for more than cursory information, and evaluating whether this is truly the right person.

It can cost between three and six times the person’s annual salary to hire someone who doesn’t work out. This cost is made up from the time spent on interviewing and training, the person’s salary and benefits while they are learning the job, and the lower level of productivity in the first few months of any new hire. Employee morale can also suffer with high turnover in your place of business.

Finally, it is important to trust your gut. Your intuition will tell you whether this is the right person and your brain will then logically justify your decision one way or the other.

Take the time and effort to get the right people on your bus.

Managing Accountability

“Accountability breeds response-ability.” — Stephen R. Covey.

Many of the organizations I see today reflect our society’s tendency to blame other people, act like a victim, and generally not take responsibility for our own actions. This lack of accountability is a problem in the workplace because it is unproductive, it negatively impacts employee engagement and it leads to poor results.

A productive workplace requires every employee to be held accountable for his or her actions. This begins with the leader and it needs to be modeled and practiced in all employee supervision.

In Denny F. Strigl’s new book “Managers, Can You Hear Me Now? Hard Hitting Lessons on How to Get Real Results,” the former CEO and president of Verizon Wireless offers many lessons on how managers fail and how they can improve.

Specifically, Strigl sees nine reasons managers struggle:

  1. They fail to build trust and integrity
  2. They have the wrong focus
  3. They don’t model or build accountability
  4. The fail to consistently reinforce what’s important
  5. They overrely on concensus
  6. They focus on being popular
  7. They get caught up in their self-importance
  8. They put their heads in the sand
  9. They fix problems, no causes

What I see common in all of these is that they are about specific behaviors. It’s no wonder research has shown that the single most important factor in success is not education, intelligence, experience and technical expertise. It is behavior.

Exceptional managers create positive results by specific behaviors that are consistently repeated day in and day out until they become a habit.

Accountability is the specific behavior that stands out for me and Strigl has what he calls eight accountability techniques that can be helpful.

1.      The Surprise Visit – Hopefully this will catch employees doing something well and provides an opportunity to commend them. However, it also helps managers identify what’s not being done well and rectify it right then and there before it can be covered up.

2.      The Unexpected Follow-Up Phone Call – When someone on your staff tells you something they are working on, don’t let it slide until the next time he or she brings it up. Make an unscheduled call and ask them about the progress to show you listened and are holding them accountable for it

3.      Coaching – As a manager, there is a coaching opportunity in every interaction with your staff that can have accountability attached to it. Practice coaching with accountability included until it becomes an instinctive management habit and is a part of every interaction.

4.      The 5:15 Report – This is a simple reporting system should take no more than 5 minutes for you to read and 15 minutes for an employee to prepare. Examples of what to include in such a report are: progress on goals, plans and pojects; emerging long-term issues; emerging short-term problems; improvement ideas; accomplishments achieved; business opportunities; unexpected events.

5.      The Performance Agreement – This is essentially a method for documenting what a manager and direct report agree the employee will accomplish over a specific period of time. To be effective, it should be simple and leave no room for misunderstanding. This can help directly measure one’s accountability.

6.      The Operations Review – This enables senior level managers the ability to review all functions within an organization, the performances of specific managers of those functions, the results managers have achieved, and the plans they have to reach future goals. It demonstrates accountability organization-wide.

7.      The Performance Appraisal – Often dreaded by both managers and employees, this should be a fine opportunity to review 1) the goals the employee met or exceeded; 2) the goals the employee has not met; 3) the manager’s recommendations concerning what the employee should do to meet his or her goals. It should be a helpful conversation that encourages accountability.

8.      The Performance Improvement Plan – This plan clarifies issues the employee is encountering or goals that he or she is missing and sets up a course of action for improvement. For the employee this can be a wake up call. The manager must be helpful, set a clear deadline, make it measurable, and support the employee through the process.

Exceptional managers are able to delegate accountability to their staff and remain accountable themselves. This accountability must be modeled continually in word, attitude and action.

In the same way children will ignore parents’ words when their behavior does not match, employees constantly monitor their manager’s behaviors to find congruence.

“When a manager is not accountable, commitments slide,” writes Strigl. “Decisions don’t get made. Responsibilities are not fulfilled. Worst of all, results are not delivered.”

And accountability is the tool that enables managers to deliver results, says Strigl.

What about you and your organization? Are you and the people who report to you held accountable? Is accountability a core value in your workplace?

Statistically Significant: Effective Managers use Soft Skills

In 2009 Google, Inc. began an internal initiative called Project Oxygen in order to better understand what makes an effective Google manager.

They analyzed more than 10,000 observations about managers, including 100 variables on things like performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.

This data-driven method for improving managers was based on the premise that Google workers are different from other workers.

In the end, Project Oxygen’s statisticians came up with eight directives that separate good managers from bad managers. These include such common sense things like:

“Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.”

“Help your employees with career development.”

“Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.”

What Google found in its research is that employees most valued managers with people skills, not technical ones. Rather than being told what to do, employees want to be helped through figuring out problems for themselves.

“Although people are always looking for the next new thing in leadership,” says D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes for an effective leader.”

According to a recent article in the The New York Times, Google’s “people operations” group, led by Laszlo Bock, “found that technical expertise—the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep—ranked dead last” among the list of Google’s eight main habits of effective managers.

Bock admitted they had assumed managers needed to have deep technical knowledge in order to effectively manage other engineers. Turns out this is the least important of the top eight qualities.

Project Oxygen discovered that two of the most important things managers can do is make time for their people and be consistent. It turns out these two things are more important than doing all of the other things.

This is not unique to Google, of course. Today’s workers need to connect with their teams and especially their immediate supervisors. It’s not that we are especially insecure and need constant feedback on what we do, but we are often isolated from the end product or bigger picture and it’s hard to know whether or not we’re doing a good job and whether we matter.

Connecting with the people who work for you and giving feedback more often than an annual performance review can be a powerful motivator.

Research suggests that employees join a company due to its reputation and they leave a company primarily due to their manager. Google’s data confirmed that managers have a much greater impact on employees’ performance and how they feel about their job than any other factor.

Soft skills, the very things that are so difficult to quantify and aren’t easily recognizable on resumes, really do make a difference in how people manage others.

As I wrote in a previous post with regard to what employees say they want from their managers, the first three are all in the category of soft skills. These are:

1. Full appreciation for work done
2. Feeling ‘part’ of things
3. Sympathetic help on personal issues

Many managers reading this may find these are not at all consistent with their own employees who surely want more tangible things like good wages, job security and promotions. But these results have been consistent over the last thirty years.

Google has grown incredibly fast since its founding in 1998. They expertly navigated this growth by hiring smart technical people and let them figure out how best to get things done. Now they need to shift the focus on replicating the people skills of their most effective managers so they can continue this growth.

Performance Previews: Linking Each Other to Our Success

The current turmoil over union rights in Wisconsin as well as the overall economic challenges facing both public and private organizations should provide a springboard for altering the way we do business.

While I am not suggesting abolishing unions, I believe there is an opportunity for significant change in employee relations at this pivotal time. This change could have wide spread implications leading to increased fiscal accountability, higher productivity and greater employee engagement.

In a recent New York Times editorial titled, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You,” Samuel Culbert argues that one way to do this is by doing away with performance reviews because they are entirely unfair. Performance reviews are too focused on pleasing the boss rather than achieving results, he says.

“They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations,” writes Culbert. “They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck.”

Culbert is a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters.”

As I wrote in a previous post, performance reviews are all too often an HR necessity rather than an opportunity to improve performance and strengthen relationships between managers and employees. New methods such as Results Only Work Environment or ROWE can be helpful in holding the employee more responsible for achieving results.

Culbert suggests taking this ROWE methodology a bit further in what he sites as performance previews, which are a way to hold both boss and his subordinate accountable for setting goals and achieving results. A true partnership can then exist between supervisor and employee to reach goals that are based on shared interests and responsibility.

Once goals are established, the decision regarding how the work gets done can be made between the two people most responsible for it and independent from the organization. This relationship is based on mutual respect and can capitalize on the unique strengths and knowledge available rather than from some objective standard found in boilerplate review paperwork.

I once held a position where, despite my success in achieving the financial-based, project targets in the management by objectives (MBOs) agreed to in my employment agreement, I was not given my annual bonus because my supervisor decided I had achieved these only through his intervention. Though I disagreed with his assessment, I had little recourse.

What if instead we had worked as a team and his success was also determined by the achievement of these goals? Rather than he as my supervisor determining my compensation based on his own subjective interpretation of who did what and how the work got done, he judged this purely on results?

All too often in competitive workplace environments, there is too much office politics, jockeying for position, and silo mentality that is in the way of getting the work done. Performance previews may provide a viable alternative to performance reviews, especially if they lead to increased communication, teamwork and achieving the organization’s goals.

The current economic crisis provides us with a great opportunity to revamp the way we do business and implement a win-win solution such as performance previews.

I welcome comments on how your organization would benefit or suffer from such a change in the way to evaluate employees.


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