There has been so much talk about the engagement of workers: Are your employees "engaged" or not? But that's the wrong question. The key factor affecting employee engagement is the relationship employees have with their immediate supervisors. Therefore, the question you should be asking is this: Are your managers "engaged" or not? From our ongoing research, we have become convinced that too many of those in leadership positions - at all levels - are disengaged from their direct reports on a day-to-day basis. Too many leaders, managers, and supervisors are failing to lead, manage, and supervise.
Since 1993, RainmakerThinking Inc. has conducted ongoing research on the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace. Late in 2002, we began to focus our research on an alarming pattern: We found that a huge preponderance of those in leadership positions, at all levels, were severely "under-managing" their direct reports on a day to day basis. We began to investigate this under-management condition as a "disease" afflicting the workplace.
"Disease" is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and is characterized by an identifiable group of symptoms." We consider under-management a disease because it is a pathological condition in an organization or team that results from a combination of environmental factors and acute causes and has clear signs, painful symptoms, and harmful effects to the organization or team (the organism).
Specifically, we define under-management as a condition in which a leader with supervisory authority (manager), due to influence, inclination, or circumstances, fails to provide regularly and consistently any employee directly subject to that authority (direct report) with any of the following "five management basics": (1) Clear statements of performance requirements and standard operating procedures related to recurring tasks and responsibilities. (2) Clear statements of defined parameters, measurable goals, and concrete deadlines for all work assignments for which the direct report will be held accountable. (3)Accurate monitoring, evaluation, and documentation of work performance. (4) Clear statements of specific feedback on work performance with guidance for improvement. (5) Rewards and detriments distributed fairly.
We studied this problem closely for 18 months (from December 2002 through June 2004), gathering data from our ongoing surveys and interviews, as well as my own direct evaluations of more than 500 managers selected from participants in RainmakerThinking's management workshops. Based on our ongoing research, our findings indicate:
1. Under-management is a workplace disease of epidemic proportions.
2. The impact of under-management is harmful and costly.
3. There are four leading causes of individual infection.
4. Environmental factors support the spread of the disease.
5. The small percentage of managers who are hands-on tend to follow several or more of a series of best practices.
1. Lack of time and/or resources. Our findings indicate...
Most managers struggle to balance their management responsibilities with their own job tasks, with management responsibilities receiving a small percentage of each manager's time. Managerial spans of control (the number of employees officially reporting to each supervisor) are increasing, putting a strain on the limited amount of time managers are able to devote to management responsibilities. Most managers have a growing list of administrative duties and paperwork related to management, which takes up a large percentage of time devoted to management responsibilities (instead of one-to-one communication with direct reports). Most managers are working with tight budgets and have limited flexibility with financial and non-financial resources.
2. False "nice guy" syndrome. Our findings indicate...
Some managers have a fundamental misunderstanding of "empowerment" that keeps them from acknowledging, asserting, and enforcing their management authority. These "false nice guy" managers think that empowerment means "direct reports own their work and make their own decisions." As a result, these managers refuse to accept responsibility for the authority and influence that comes with their position. They resist making clear statements about performance requirements, standard operating procedures, direction, feedback on performance (praise or criticism), guidance for improvement, or the distribution of rewards and detriments.
3. Lack of skill. Our findings indicate...
Most managers receive insufficient training in the best techniques of effective supervision. As a result, most managers develop ad hoc their own sub-optimal management style and repertoire of management techniques, which become ingrained over time as strong habits. These strong habits present serious personal obstacles making it difficult for most managers to learn new techniques and develop a more optimal management style and repertoire, eventually ingraining new strong habits.
4. Fear. A large number of managers are afraid of the potential consequences if they attempt to take a highly-engaged (providing the five management basics at least once a week) approach with direct reports. Our findings indicate the top five fears managers have about being highly-engaged...
1. The changes in the workplace that have occurred since the early 1990s go way beyond short-term trends and ordinary fluctuations in the labor market. There is a historic macro-economic shift under way. Driven by the great forces of history - technology and globalization - the larger economy has reached a new stage of global interconnection, high speed, and complexity. The worldwide business environment has become one of high risk, erratic markets, and unpredictable resource-needs.
2. In order to adjust, organizations of all sizes have tried to become lean and flexible, adopting aggressive human capital management practices to try to get more work and better work out of fewer employees.
3. Without credible long-term promises from employers, most employees work anxiously to take care of themselves and their families and try to get what they can from their employers, one day at a time.
4. The traditional long-term hierarchical employer-employee bond has morphed into a short-term transactional relationship.
5. Many managers find employee attitudes and behavior to be extremely frustrating, difficult to manage, and downright maddening.
6. Traditional sources of authority are being supplanted by new sources. Seniority, age, rank, and rules are diminishing. Organization charts are flatter; layers of management have been removed. Reporting relationships are more temporary; more employees are being managed by short-term project leaders, instead of "organization chart" managers. Managers are losing their old fashioned long-term hierarchical power, a form of power that (once acquired) required little effort to wield.
7. On the rise as sources of authority are more hands-on and transactional forms such as control of resources, control of rewards, and control of work conditions. Increasingly, supervisory managers are the primary points of contact with the employer organization for most employees.
8. On a daily basis, the supervisory manager defines the work experience for most employees. Employees rely on immediate supervisors more than any other individuals for meeting their basic needs and expectations and dealing with a whole range of day-to-day issues that arise at work. Yet, wielding these hands-on and transactional sources of authority requires a great deal of time, dedication, skill, and interpersonal courage.
1. They are extremely knowledgeable about the tasks and responsibilities of each direct report. That means knowing the details of their work. Enough to know what can be done every day and what cannot be done; what resources will be necessary; what problems may occur; what expectations are reasonable; what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious; and enough to fairly and accurately monitor and measure success and failure.
2. They not only provide direction and guidance on a regular basis, but also support and coaching. They help identify resource needs and help fulfill them; help identify potential problems and help solve them; and monitor and measure the workload of each person. They evaluate performance in order to determine when tasks, responsibilities, and projects are a good fit or a bad fit; when a direct report requires more information or additional training; when a direct report is having a bad day or a good day; when a direct report needs advice, motivation, inspiration, or counsel.
3. They spend time with every direct report in regular coaching sessions to remind direct reports about overall performance requirements and standard operating procedures, as well as spelling out concrete expectations, and clarifying goals, deadlines, and parameters. They take charge and offer clear direction, but also get input from direct reports throughout the process. They try to work with direct reports to determine what is reasonable, anticipate problems and resource needs together, strategize together about how to reach ambitious targets, and give direct reports some ownership and complicity in the goal-setting process. Over time, the two key factors they keep track of are: (1) How much responsibility should be delegated to each direct report; and (2) How often the manager needs to meet with each direct report.
4. They monitor and measure performance in writing, on an ongoing basis, so they can champion and reward success and, just as urgently, deal with failure. They put themselves in a position to judge the cause of successes as well as failures, to determine when successes and failures result from a direct report's attention, care, judgment, or effort. And they document that judgment in some kind of running notes about management interactions with each direct report, organized as a tracking system, both chronologically and by person. The key is keeping detailed contemporaneous records of conversations with direct reports including: reminders about overall performance standards, goals, deadlines, guidelines and parameters; anticipating and planning for resource needs and to avoid problems; questions asked by direct reports and any answers; requests made by direct reports and any answers; any quid pro quo promised in exchange for specific performance; and any other special issues that require follow-up.
5. They understand, accept, and even embrace the new reality that managing people has become a day-to-day negotiation. It means abandoning the top down assumptions of hierarchical leadership and letting go of insult when direct reports resist the manager's authority and make demands. It means constantly answering the questions that are always on every employee's mind: "What's the deal around here? What do you want from me? And what do I get for my hard work... today?"
6. They also decide what is not negotiable. What are the basic performance requirements and standard operating procedures for which employees should expect nothing more than to be treated fairly, paid for their work, and keep their jobs? And they have the guts and discipline to relentlessly communicate these requirements and standard operating procedures and hold every direct report accountable for them.
7. They give every individual a chance to set and meet ambitious goals and deadlines on a regular basis; have an accurate ongoing analysis of each individual's performance; and document all of this clearly and consistently in writing, in a daily record.
8. They make every effort to tie rewards (and detriments) to measurable instances of employee performance and nothing else. Most compensation systems allow most managers much more discretion they actually use. There are often opportunities to distinguish between and among employees on the basis of performance in ways that do affect their compensation directly: Sometimes that means having the guts to give high performers higher scores and lower performers lower scores - in project evaluations and in semi-annual and annual reviews. Sometimes it means working with limited bonus pools and allocating funds, not evenly among all the team members, but rather according to performance. Sometimes it means using limited spot bonus funds to reward some higher performers. Sometimes it means going to bat to get additional discretion or additional funds in order to, in fact, reward high performers who deserve to be rewarded.
9. They also make every effort to tie non-financial rewards to performance. They are creative and use the discretion and discretionary resources at their disposal. The key is to gain control of as many "bargaining chips" as possible and use them to negotiate for increased performance. These bargaining chips include the manager's power over resources and work conditions; the assignment of tasks; training opportunities; scheduling; recognition; exposure to decision-makers; working in one location or another, or with one co-worker or another; and so on.
10. They make every effort to find every employee's "needle in a haystack" - his/her unique needs and wants - and use those needles to create "unique value propositions" for direct reports. This technique gives direct reports a strong personal stake in the job and the relationship with the manager. There is no better leverage for retention and no better motivational tool for exceptional performance, than a direct report's needle in a haystack.
11. They deal with performance problems immediately and aggressively. As soon as a direct report's performance starts to slip, these managers start meeting more often and focusing the person on more narrow goals and deadlines, with constant reminders about performance requirements and standard operating procedures. If the problem persists, it is diagnosed and swift action taken. These managers are prepared to have direct performance improvement conversations and then follow up aggressively and try to turn the downward spiral into an upward spiral. If this effort fails, these managers are prepared to remove the "stubborn low performers."
Bruce Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., New Haven, Conn., and is recognized as an expert on young people in the workplace. He is a management trainer and is also the author or coauthor of 15 books on management, including Winning the Talent Wars, Managing Generation X, HOT Management, Managing Generation Y, and Managing the Generation Mix. For more information, visit www.rainmakerthinking.com.
Publication date: 11/28/2005