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Are Good Managers an Endangered Species?

Bob Little 

December 15, 2017

No one likes to be on the receiving end of a “bad boss.” But, even though – intuitively, at the very least – we know what qualities a “good boss” should have, it’s surprising just how rarely we find them in ourselves and others.

Indeed, according to a 2016 poll from Personnel Today, only 40 percent of U.K. workers actually liked their boss. While a 2015 study from Gallup revealed that half of employees in the U.S. had left jobs to escape a manager, in the hopes of improving the overall quality of their life.

The survey also reported that only a third of people were engaged in their jobs. And that managers were responsible for at least 70 percent of variance in the employee engagement scores.

A Few Good Managers

Both surveys show the detrimental impact that poor management can have on employee performance and well-being. This can often lead to negative business consequences. Increased absenteeism, for instance, and high staff turnover. In fact, according to 2017 research from Officevibe, actively disengaged managers cost the U.S. between $319 and $398bn annually.

As business journalist David Bolchover explains, “It’s a fair bet that your least enjoyable and unproductive periods in work coincided with having a manager you didn’t respect and who didn’t value your contribution. The converse is also probably true. But if managers are so important, why are so few up to the job, and what can be done about it?”

Before we can answer that question, however, we need to clarify the difference between a “manager” and a “leader.”

Bolchover argues that “leadership” focuses on how people inspire others or influence an organization’s culture. He says, “Leadership affects others through osmosis rather than direct contact. Management, on the other hand, involves dealing with other people’s messy realities, finding out what makes them tick and solving personal and workplace problems.”

The Key Qualities of a Good Boss

So what makes a good boss?

According to VanDyck Silveira, CEO of the Financial Times |IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, “One of the signs of good management may lie in instilling staff with a sense of ‘ownership’… .” Good managers are also “people people.” This means that they have excellent interpersonal skills and a high a degree of emotional intelligence. Other key qualities include:

  • Selecting and developing the right people.
  • Delegating effectively.
  • Motivating people.
  • Managing discipline and dealing with conflict.
  • Excellent communication.
  • Planning, making decisions and problem solving.

How Do We Sort the Good From the Bad?

According to Bolchover, “Progress lies not in the development of managers but in their selection.

“To identify those people who positively want to manage others, companies must overcome systematic dishonesty within their organization,” he says. “Ask employees if they want promotion to a management position and the answer will be an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ Of course they do. It’ll involve more pay and status, and be a step closer to still higher pay and status in the corporate hierarchy.”

So, what’s the solution?

Bolchover advises countering this problem by making managers’ remuneration purely dependent on managerial performance. He says, “When middle managers are judged on their individual rather than their team’s performance, they often lack interest in managing others well because pay and prospects don’t depend on it. By rewarding only their managerial accomplishments, companies will attract more of the right candidates for those roles, thereby improving overall performance.”

He also highlights four key strategies organizations can introduce to help improve the standard of managers internally:

1. Send a clear message. Be explicit in internal communications about how the organization values people management skills.

2. Change the rewards system. Communicate and demonstrate that managers’ people skills will be rewarded accordingly.

3. Identify motivations. In interviews for management positions, focus on the candidate’s motivation for and interest in managing others.

4. Celebrate role models. Highlight proven “people managers” as role models within the organization.

The Accountability Paradox

But good management doesn’t just start and end with the right boss. People also need to be able to manage and be accountable for themselves and their work.

According to management coaches, Will Karlsen and Jackie Smyth, however, implementing accountability (or self-management) mechanisms to boost employee engagement, can actually have the opposite effect.

Typically, employees do their jobs because of extrinsic motivators. These include monetary incentives, hopes of promotion and/or fear of being fired. And while this approach can work in the short term, it often ignores intrinsic motivations, such as care, interest, trust, and empathy. All of which can improve loyalty, wellbeing and performance.

Furthermore, if a project’s goals are unclear, unachievable or unfair, people can lose interest, self-confidence and trust in their employer.

Karlsen and Smyth say that, “Rather than engaging staff, ‘accountability’ can spread vulnerability, fear and distrust. Accountability needs to be an outcome, not a starting point.”

An Ownership Approach

So, what can organizations do to encourage people to manage and motivate themselves?

Karlsen and Smyth advise organizations to start by encouraging a sense of ownership. This involves making people feel that their interests and actions – and not just financial rewards – are bound up in a project’s outcome.

An ownership approach requires three key elements:

  • Ethical leadership. An organizational culture that is built on strong ethical values can help to improve people’s wellbeing and job satisfaction. This creates the right conditions for psychological and emotional ownership.
  • Trust in the organization. People will be able to identify with an organization that they feel truly values their contribution. In contrast, when people stop trusting their employer, they begin to prioritize self-preservation over initiative. They’re also unlikely to communicate their best ideas and honest opinions.
  • Personal development. If workers can connect the various aspects of their work to the “bigger picture,” they can “own” what they do and how they do it. This increases commitment and boosts self-confidence. It is also the point at which workers choose to become accountable.

Accountability, therefore, should not be about a project’s “success” or “failure.” Instead it should be about a person’s willingness to own their work, to show initiative, and to take responsibility for the decisions they make.

To achieve this, Karlsen and Smyth advocate encouraging people to explore the meanings and inter-connections of six key facets of their work. These are: outcomes, reputation, action, plan, strategy, and purpose.

“For example,” explains Smyth, “asking ‘why do people do the things they do?’ explores the link between purpose and action. Asking how others’ views of you can be affected by the way you do things explores the connection between reputation and strategy.”

Karlsen and Smyth also advise organizations looking to embed an ownership strategy to:

  • Emphasize transparency. Be open and honest about a project’s goals to ensure full understanding.
  • Be clear. Ensure that everyone knows what team members do, and how this contributes to organizational goals.
  • Step back. Allow people to get on with the tasks that they are set.

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