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Can Bad Managers Be Saved?

by Marco Nink and Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Some managers have little or no talent for people management
  • Lack of knowledge, belief and talent are key problems
  • Systemic barriers could be an issue

Most companies have teams that consistently show poor employee engagement. In many cases, this can be traced back to managers with little or no talent for people management.

Yet it's just not realistic to fire all of those managers. It's also not necessary; although not every manager has the talent to be great, many can improve.

And efforts to help them improve are critical. Managers who don't engage their teams create a source of frustration, rather than fulfillment, at work. The reality is that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged, and disengagement hurts company performance.

Gallup research shows that engaged employees, on the other hand, are more productive and have fewer sick days and accidents, as well as lower error rates. They also have more fun at work and are significantly less likely to experience burnout, suffer from depression and anxiety, or behave badly with their friends and family.

While engagement is not solely about the manager, the drivers of engagement tend to originate at the local level. This makes managers the best positioned to drive positive change. Indeed, centering change strategies on managers is smart, but those strategies require a solid understanding of the impact that dispiriting managers have on their people and the company's performance.

Gallup engagement data can show a company its pockets of engagement problems -- teams that most need intervention. And when the epicenter of low engagement is a manager who's bad at people management, the reason is often one of the four below.

Reasons for Poor Management

Lack of knowledge ("I don't know how."): Most interventions focus on the manager's accountability, but accountability without empowerment isn't practical. Managers need development -- training, learning opportunities and ongoing coaching -- that focuses on basic management skills and interpreting employee feedback. They may not know how to start a dialogue or how to determine next steps. They may not fully understand that their responsibility for people management is as great as their responsibility for task management. And companies need to support -- without punishing -- managers as they learn how to better manage people. Most managers want to do a good job, but some of them just don't know what to do.

Lack of belief ("I don't believe in engagement."): Managers who are unsure of the importance of engagement need qualitative and quantitative analysis to understand the effects of engagement. They need to hear engagement success stories. They need the value of engagement demonstrated for them.

But that's not enough: Companies also need to encourage managers to act on the results of employee engagement surveys, and leading by example and role modeling can help. The leadership team needs to share their engagement survey results, their plans for improvement and, later, their achievements. This can help engage managers and create accountability.

Research shows that leaders who engage their direct teams will see those results cascade down as others emulate their behaviors. This should remind leaders to start working on their own engagement. The more engaged the top team members are, the better they can engage others.

Lack of talent ("I just cannot work with people."): Some managers simply can't manage people. A 2014 Gallup study in Germany helps explain why: When we asked managers why they believed they were hired for their current role, about half cited their expertise and tenure in their company or field (51%) or their success in a previous non-managerial role (47%).

This means the majority of managers are not placed in their jobs because they've demonstrated the talent to lead people intuitively or well.

Companies should select managers based on their ability to engage, care for and focus on each employee as an individual. The data provided by the engagement survey are designed to help managers reflect on their behaviors and work with their teams to create a more engaging environment. But they need leaders' assistance, too.

Systemic barriers ("It's outside of my control."): If every night shift in every plant, for example, struggles with low levels of engagement regardless of location or manager, then the business may have a systemic barrier. The issue may be the shift, not the manager. Senior management is responsible for addressing systemic barriers and must deal with them before they hold managers solely accountable for disengagement. But even if systemic barriers are removed, some managers may not be able to engage their team members because they lack the knowledge, skills, belief or talent to optimize the performance of their employees.

Annamarie Mann contributed to the writing of this article.


Marco Nink is Gallup's Director of Research and Analytics, EMEA.

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