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Engagement Data Reveals Which Leadership Qualities REALLY Matter in Management


It’s one of the greatest mysteries of the modern workforce:

What really makes outstanding managers so darn effective, and how can companies repeat their successes?

While there have been countless studies and surveys related to this topic, few have tackled it from an employee engagement perspective. We’ve long had a hunch that there’s more to learn, and decided to conduct our own research here at 15five.

In a recent analysis, our researchers combed through data from more than 70,000 employees to shed light on what effective managers are doing differently. By singling out teams that have experienced steady increases in employee engagement, we were able to get a strong sense of which managers are truly making a difference — and what leadership qualities they have in common.

The results were instructive, and at times, a little surprising.

The critical leadership skill all effective managers share

While the managers in our study had several traits in common, one in particular stood out as especially important when it comes to helping teams thrive.

It’s a leadership quality so important that as many as 77% of employees have said they prefer it over traits such as warmth, friendliness, and likability.

So, what is this common characteristic? Proficiency. Here’s why it’s so important:

Based on 15five’s work with hundreds of companies and thousands of people-leaders, teams with high levels of engagement tend to be led by empathetic managers. This observation was echoed in a recent DDI study where empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — was identified as a critical driver of effective management.

The issue? Despite its importance, only 40% of frontline leaders in the DDI study were found to be consistently empathetic with employees.

This is where proficiency comes in.

Empathizing with employees can be incredibly difficult for the manager who hasn’t personally experienced what someone else is going through. It’s no surprise, then, that the managers singled out for interviews in 15five’s study had high levels of proficiency. They had a strong knowledge of the work their employees where doing, and in many cases had done the jobs themselves in previous roles. As a result, these managers are able to empathize with challenges, share lessons learned, and help problem-solve.

How to replicate this effective management style

By now, some of you may be worrying about what to do when you’re not competent in a particular area.

If you ever find yourself overseeing employees who take on tasks you haven’t had an opportunity to do yourself, don’t panic. Proficiency comes in many forms, and empathy can be developed in different ways.

Consider the stories of beloved leaders like Bozoma Saint John, who got behind the wheel during her time at Uber, and Howard Schultz, who famously places a premium on self-renewal and reinvention. These individuals took the time to see work through the eyes of employees themselves, and to ensure their voices would be heard.

You don’t have to be an executive at a multi-billion-dollar company to learn from these examples, of course. The managers in 15five’s study took similar steps with their own teams. For instance: One team leader at a custom concrete business regularly joined staff at construction sites; another took time to learn the technology her marketing employees use on a daily basis.

There are many proven methods that can be used to replicate effective leadership styles — such as giving employees a voice, allowing greater autonomy, and regularly soliciting feedback.

We go into detail on these and other recommendations in our latest report: The Qualities of Effective Managers. This resource reveals important research for all people management, whether people leaders or C-suite visionaries. If you’d like actionable tips you can use to increase proficiency within your organization’s teams, I highly recommend giving it a read.

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