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Managers Are Agents; Employees Are the Stars

Managers Are Agents; Employees Are the Stars

by Tim Simon
Managers Are Agents; Employees Are the Stars

Many of us are familiar with cult-classic "Office Space" -- a movie about a group of software employees fed up with their jobs and their boss, Bill Lumbergh. In the film, their fictional company, Initech, hires a consulting firm to help the company downsize. We can all recall the scene when Peter Gibbons, the film's "hero" who is sick and tired of the situation, saunters into his interview with the two consultants, Bob and Bob, and decides to just lay it all out there.

When asked to describe his typical day at work, Peter admits he usually comes in at least 15 minutes late and, "After that, I just sorta space out for an hour. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too … I'd say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work. The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy. It's just that I don't care."

When "the Bobs" press for more information, Peter goes on to complain that "… when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my real motivation -- not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job. But y'know, Bob, it will only make someone work hard enough not to get fired."

How many times have we as coaches encountered similar situations? The movie gives us a funny -- and accurate -- depiction of an actively disengaged employee and a really bad manager.

Gallup has been interviewing and studying managers for over 50 years and has found that, unfortunately, there are a number of Bill Lumberghs out in the workforce. The good news is there are also a lot of great managers -- skilled leaders who are productive, help their organizations grow and engage each employee.

In 1999, Gallup published First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. The book summarized Gallup's in-depth studies -- including over 80,000 manager interviews -- and the lifetime work of Dr. Don Clifton to establish the science of employee engagement. Republished in 2016, First, Break All the Rules (FBATR) has helped organizations, leaders and managers across the globe measure, guide and increase employee engagement.

The research presented in the book yielded many discoveries, but the most powerful was this: Talented employees need great managers. How long an employee stays and how productive they are is often determined by the relationship with their immediate supervisor. However, no manager can make an employee be engaged and productive. Managers can act as facilitators, linking the talent of an employee to the needs of the company, but they cannot do this without major effort from the employee.

"In the world according to great managers, the employee is the star. The manager is the agent. And … the agent expects a great deal from the stars."

--First, Break All the Rules

Gallup's continued research has shown that employee accountability is a crucial aspect of employee engagement. According to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, "Managers are the driving force and carry the highest accountability for ensuring employees' needs are met, but employees are not off the hook." In other words, Peter might not have felt like a "star" in the film, but (despite his flaws as a manager), the blame did not rest entirely on Bill Lumbergh.

Employees must own their engagement, and strengths coaches can help individuals take more control of their career paths. In FBATR, the "great" managers interviewed provide practical tips strengths coaches can use to help managers become skillful agents, and employees feel like stars. Here are six suggestions:

  1. Great managers expect talented employees to look in the mirror any chance they get. Coach individuals to use any feedback tools provided by their company to increase their understanding of who they are or how others perceive them.
  2. Great managers encourage employees to take 20 or 30 minutes each month to muse and reflect. Coach clients to play back the last few week in their minds. What did they accomplish? What is unfinished? How are they using their talents to accomplish goals or complete work?
  3. Discover yourself. Help clients become more aware and detailed in their description of their talents, skills and knowledge. They then can use this understanding to become better partners, volunteer for the right roles and to guide training and development choices.
  4. Great managers expect employees to identify what kinds of relationships they need and ones that work by building their constituency. Encourage clients to have a "board of directors" -- three to five people they meet with a couple of times each year to assist with their growth and development.
  5. Build your own record and keep track of your learnings and discoveries. As Dr. Don Clifton said, "We are never as strong as when we have clearly in mind our successes."
  6. Make work a little better by catching your peers doing something right. When clients enter work, they should never leave it a zero. Recognizing peers for good work is one of the most powerful questions in Gallup's vast database.

The workforce is changing, and with it, employee expectations around performance management -- employees want to have a say in their future and want to take ownership of their growth and development. As the State of the American Workplace affirms, "Leaders and managers should honor this desire and empower employees to become part of the performance development process."

There are plenty of Lumberghs and Peters in the workplace today. As strengths coaches, let's work to coach them into becoming agents and stars of employee engagement.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

Tim Simon's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Learner, Woo, Maximizer, Focus and Arranger.

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