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Managing Managers Effectively: The One Question All Leaders Should Ask More Often


If you were to ask the 15five engagement experts the #1 mistake they see most often, they wouldn’t hesitate before answering: guesswork. In fact, when it comes to creating a culture of engagement, relying on your gut is one of the hardest habits to break.

For management teams, this can be especially tricky. After all, it’s usually your gut that tips you off to the possibility that something’s “off.” You don’t need a social science degree to determine that whispered conversations and cubicles regularly emptied at 5:02 could be indicators that people aren’t fully engaged with their work.

But unless your workforce feels 100 percent safe in sharing feedback—something that’s difficult to achieve—employees aren’t likely to volunteer information that’ll help you understand what’s wrong. You’re going to have to figure it out. But how?

The answer is surprisingly simple, and boils down to a single question:

“How am I doing?”

In our experiences with thousands of employees, we’ve found that the answers to this one inquiry have the power to tell you exactly what’s going on under the surface—and identify what might be holding your business back from greater growth. This question is the foundation of increased engagement, greater ROI and, most importantly, creating an environment where people are motivated by passion and purpose.

You just have to pose it in a non-threatening, welcoming way.


Why You Need Employee Input To Manage Managers Effectively

Before we can dive into strategy specifics for gathering manager feedback, it’s important to understand why this one question is so important.

With everything a manager does—setting team goals, evaluating individual performance, fostering collaboration, checking progress—the position necessitates talking, and a lot of it. So we all need the occasional reminder that sometimes, the best thing to do is listen.

Ben Horowitz, the uber successful author and investor, put it best when he said that managers should do 90 percent of the listening and just 10 percent of the talking. Granted, he was talking about one-on-one meetings. But this concept can be easily applied to management in general. The manager’s job, says Horowitz, is to “draw the key issues out of the employee.”

At a higher level, listening is often lauded as the best way for leadership to manage managers. “Superboss” expert Sydney Finkelstein encourages executives to “get to know” your managers’ teams—a seemingly simple endeavor that can be surprisingly difficult to get right.

“It can be tricky to know how much you should interact with your direct reports’ teams,” Finkelstein told the Harvard Business Review. “On the one hand, you need to be familiar with the players so that you can give the manager relevant feedback and coaching. But, on the other hand, you don’t want to undermine their authority.”

With today’s engagement tools and technology, there is a relatively easy way to achieve this delicate balance.


How to Manage a Manager’s Performance…By Listening

Let’s face it: Getting employees to open up can be challenging. Making them feel comfortable enough to offer candid insight is often downright impossible. But if you’re going to benefit from the “how am I doing” approach, candid feedback is exactly what you need.


How do you pose this question in an authentic, actionable way? Recently, we shared a gut-free method for evaluating your manager’s performance through confidential engagement surveys. This same approach can be used to understand employees’ relationships with their managers. Only now, you’re not looking to identify problems. It’s time to find inspiration!

High-scoring divisions and teams are a clear indication that something’s going right. Why not use feedback to find out what they’re doing?

For example, let’s say your employees rated the following survey statements on a scale of 1 to 10:

  • I am inspired to do my best work
  • I’m excited about how my work matters to our team
  • Time goes by very quickly when I am at work

When you see eights, nines, and tens across the board for a particular team, you’ll know the answer to “How am I doing?” is a positive one. And because you’ve posed a form of this question within the safety of a confidential survey built for candid feedback, you can trust that the answers are authentic.

Next, it’s time to find out what’s going right. One way to do this is through a short, follow-up SmartPulse™ survey to get an even better understanding of how engaged employees are being effectively supported by their managers. “How does your manager help inspire you?” or “What is your manager doing that helps you feel excited about current projects?” can provide valuable intel you can leverage when coaching and mentoring your entire management team.

Should your managers ask employees how they’re doing themselves? Absolutely. Can you help provide even deeper insights through surveys? Yes, and your entire management team will thank you for it. Think of it as yet another advantage to keep in your arsenal of tools for managing managers effectively.

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