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What the Best Managers Do Differently — And How Employers Can Support Them


It’s often said that employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad bosses. But put a great manager at the head of a team, and the opposite happens. (To see what I mean, consider the case of Christian and Netflix mentioned here.)

If you read our earlier discussions on managing your managers and evaluating their performance, you know how 15Five feels about the need for effective people management. The success of any organization depends on it.

Most CEOs understand this fundamental need, of course. Things only get tricky when it comes to implementation: What qualities have been proven to make for truly great managers? Once you find someone who exhibits those characteristics, what should be done to support them?

Would you believe that even many of the most successful companies—including ones that set the standard for cutting-edge culture—have struggled to answer these questions?

To find out why, we spent some time digging into groundbreaking studies, stats, facts, and findings among leaders in the employee engagement space. Here’s what we uncovered:

1. The manager-employee relationship is more than important—it’s crucial.

The connections your employees create with their managers are some of the most important relationships they’ll form over the course of their careers. They’re the ones that determine if a team will achieve outstanding goals or watch productivity plummet.

According to one study, 70 percent of employee motivation comes from managers.

Yes, you read that right. Seventy percent!

If you’ve been wondering why some of your teams are performing better and are more profitable than others, there’s a good chance it’s because they simply have better bosses. A great manager can inspire individuals, unite teams, prevent burnout, and keep employees engaged.

Here’s the catch: Many of the best managers are the ones who don’t have it all figured out. They’re constantly making adjustments. And they need your help as they adopt different approaches.

2. CEOs play a central role in helping managers thrive.

Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and president at TalentSmart, said it best:

“Organizations know how important it is to have motivated, engaged employees, but most fail to hold managers accountable for making it happen.”

This powerful statement begs the question: What can executives do to better support managers?

Simply recognizing that your management team serves as the central nervous system through which all employee engagement factors flow is a great start.

In fact, more than half of employees will turn down a 10 percent pay increase to stay with a great manager. In a 2,000-employee survey on manager-employee relationships, 93 percent said trust in their direct boss is essential to staying engaged at work and putting forth their best effort.

The more you do to help managers thrive, the more empowered they’ll be to help you retain your top performers.

3. Using data, not instinct, is key.

Believe it or not, Google got it wrong.

Several years ago, Google’s data scientists analyzed a mind-boggling 10,000 manager observations—everything from performance reviews to manager award nominations—to identify key characteristics of the perfect boss.

In the years since results of this now-famous Project Oxygen were first revealed, industry experts have discussed Google’s “eight habits of highly effective managers” at length. In one particularly compelling Inc. account of the findings, human capital specialist Michael Schneider had this to say:

“Effective managers take care of their people, understanding that their people take care of the work.”

And this:

“Top-performing managers took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

If these observations seem forehead-slapping obvious, you might be surprised to hear that they were contrary to Google’s promotional practices for management positions at the time.

The findings, as reported by The New York Times’ former Corner Office columnist Adam Bryant, were in direct contrast to the company’s policy of promoting people to management positions based on technical expertise:

“[Researchers] found that technical expertise ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Bottom line: Even Google, which sets the standard for data-driven business decisions, had to take a step back to understand what kind of manager-employee relationships were truly needed.

This data-driven finding was a transformative one, especially since it came at a time when HR had long been running “on gut instincts more than hard data.”

How can you improve manager-employee relationships at your company?

The answer to this question will vary from one organization to another, and even from team to team. The important thing to remember is that your employees rely on their bosses to feel truly engaged at work. The more you do to help managers thrive, the better positioned they’ll be to increase productivity and profits.

The best way to discover what shape that support should take at your company is simple: Ask employees what they think! There’s a lot you can achieve with honest, candid employee feedback.

Unlock the true potential of your people.

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