What makes someone a good manager?

This is, of course, a difficult question to answer.

Certainly those “popular” management advice books aren’t much help, as I was able to show in previous posts. Every text I’ve ever read offers nothing but contradictory advice and paradoxical assertions.[1]

But business schools aren’t much better, as I also argued in some prior posts.[2] Many within the management academia claim that managing well is akin to an “art” (as opposed to a science) requiring some sort of innate talent,[3] while others insist there really is no “one best way” to manage, each situation being unique in and of itself.[4]

Unfortunately though, neither perspective is much help if you’re just a manager trying to figure out how to do your job better.

Part of the challenge is that this question is really two questions – one folded into the other. The first is perhaps better phrased what is a manager? and is a bit easier to answer. A manager is someone who coordinates the efforts others; that person deemed responsible for organizing the work of one or more individuals, and ensuring their efforts are directed towards some common, agreed-upon organizational goal.[5]

This does not go very far, however, in answering the broader, and more difficult second question what makes a particular manager good? (Or, for that matter, not good?) Certainly any manager who neglects to coordinate the work of his or her subordinates is likely to suffer by reputation. Dereliction of duty is rarely the path to excellence. But managers whose supervision is excessive—“micromanagers” as they are referred to today—are perhaps criticized just as frequently.[6]

Well, for this week’s post, a slightly different approach.

Instead of attempting to figure out what managers need to do to be considered “good,” let’s start with what organizations want or expect from their managers, and work backwards from there. In other words, what is it exactly that businesses, companies, and corporations are looking for from their managers?

And what, in turn, can a manager do to deliver it?

 

The right stuff

Without a doubt, what any for-profit organization wants first and foremost from management is simple:

Success.

Typically this means some measure of financial success, upon which, obviously, the very survival of any business depends.

How that success might be achieved, however, is perhaps open to debate.

Some would argue that producing a superior product is the best strategy, while others might contend that providing the best possible customer service is the key. And then there are those who believe that offering a better value than one’s competitors is sufficient.

Ask any successful businessperson, entrepreneur, or CEO what it takes, however, and you’ll likely get a very different response. The crucial factor, you are likely to be assured, boils down to one thing: People. That familiar refrain “people are our most important asset” is perhaps just the most obvious expression of this widely-held sentiment.[7]

But just any workers won’t do, of course.

Indeed, it takes more than just a bunch of warm bodies for a company to be successful. The right workers are necessary. And while this might seem to imply that those workers need to be well-educated, highly-skilled, or otherwise suitably experienced, none of these qualities are terribly critical, as it turns out. Instead, it is enthusiasm for the job that consistently proves to be most valuable to employers.

And there is considerable evidence to back this assertion up.

According to the Gallup Organization, companies who employ workers who are highly “engaged” are far better off than their rivals – an advantage that manifests itself in a variety of concrete and measurable ways. For instance:[8]

  • Amongst publicly traded companies, organizations with an engaged workforce outperformed their competitors by 18%, based on the earnings-per-share. And over time, these companies progressed at a faster rate than their industry peers.
  • Being in the higher reaches of team engagement equated to 12 percent higher customer service scores, compared to those teams in the bottom tier.
  • When Gallup’s database of business units was sorted from most- to least-engaged and then split down the middle, teams in the more engaged half were more than twice (2x) as likely to succeed as their counterparts on the other side of the divide. When the teams were split into four equally sized groups, teams in the top quartile were three times (3x) as likely to succeed as those in the bottom quartile, averaging 18 percent higher productivity and 12 percent higher profitability.

Furthermore:

  • Engaged employees averaged 27% less absenteeism than those who were considered actively disengaged.
  • Workgroups whose engagement put them in the bottom quartile of Gallup’s database averaged 62% more accidents than workgroups in the top quartile.
  • Workgroups with an inordinately high number of disengaged workers lost 51% more of their inventory to “shrink” (employee theft) than those on the other end of the spectrum.
  • Business units with a surplus of disengaged workers suffer 31 percent more turnover than those a critical mass of engaged associates.
  • In low turnover industries, business units with actively disengaged employees experienced 51% more turnover than those with engaged employees – a disadvantage compounded by the fact that the cost in dollars of losing one person is often greater in low turnover businesses.

 

Give me what I want

If engaged and enthusiastic employees are what it takes to succeed, the obvious next question is:

What can I do, as a manager, to ensure my employees are in fact engaged?

Well, according to the behavioral scientist and management consultant David Sirota and his colleagues Louis Mischkind and Michael Meltzer, the short answer is:

Give your employees what they want.

In The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Their Employees What They Want (2005), Sirota and his fellow researchers identified what they considered to be the ideal employee: An individual who is “enthusiastic,” and possesses a genuine desire and willingness to go above and beyond what is expected of him/her. In their words:

“Enthusiastic employees…search for ways to improve things rather than just react to management’s requests; encourage co-workers to high levels of performance and find ways to help them; welcome, rather than resist, needed change; and conduct transactions with…customers in ways that bring credit (and business) to the company.”[9]

Furthermore:

“…enthusiasm is not just about being happier or more content—it is employees feeling that they work for a great company, one to which they are willing to devote time and energy beyond what they are being paid for or what is expected and monitored.”[10]

Understandably, Sirota and his colleagues then set out to figure out what it might take to achieve such levels of worker engagement.

What they found, however, probably isn’t what you’d expect. Superior recruiting efforts, for instance—that is, identifying and hiring employees who already have “the right stuff,” so to speak—was not considered to be terribly critical. Most workers, they discovered, start a new job with high levels of enthusiasm to begin with.[11] And while pay was certainly a factor, not in the way—nor to the extent—that you might imagine.[12]

Instead, Sirota and his colleagues found that high levels of enthusiasm and engagement can be elicited from employees by making a sincere effort to satisfy three (3) basic needs.

These are the need for equity, achievement, and camaraderie.[13]

 

These are my needs

Equity is the term Sirota and his colleagues chose to describe an employee’s desire “to be treated fairly in relation to the basic condition of the workplace.”[14]

Most people, these researchers found, harbor a desire to feel that they are being treated equitably relative to their colleagues, and that there is little (if any) preferential treatment. As for the “basic conditions” of the workplace, this was thought to include:[15]

  • Physiological conditions – such as having a safe working environment, a workload that does not damage physical or emotional health, and reasonably comfortable working conditions
  • Economic conditions – such as having a reasonable degree of job security, satisfactory compensation, and satisfactory fringe benefits
  • Psychological conditions – respectful treatment (with reasonable accommodation being made for personal and family needs), credible and consistent management, and being given a fair hearing for complaints

Achievement is the sense of accomplishment workers hope to experience through the work they do, according to Sirota. This would include a desire to receive recognition for one’s own accomplishments, as well as the accomplishments of the organization.[16]

Most people actually want to work, Sirota and his colleagues observed[17] – and being able to produce work that could be considered of “high quality” was also seen as important to most workers.[18] “Few people volunteer to fail,” they also noted, so a desire not only for a challenging job, but one that they could do well was considered critical.[19] And since people tend to gravitate not only to work they enjoy, but what they’re good at, some degree of job autonomy was seen as helpful in satisfying this particular need as well.[20]

Finally, camaraderie is the term Sirota used to describe the sense of community most people hope to experience at their places of work. The desire “to have warm, interesting, and cooperative relations with others in the workplace” is shared by most workers, these researchers found.[21]

 

Get real

It should be noted these findings are not unusual. That previously cited study conducted by the Gallup Organization, for instance, resulted in similar recommendations.[22]

Nor are Sirota’s findings apt to surprise to you, I’d wager. Given the opportunity, who amongst us wouldn’t jump at the chance to be part of a company committed to providing for, or creating a workplace which satisfied these three “needs”?

(Personally, I’d settle for an employer who even made a half-reasonable attempt to do so.)

But let’s be honest – this is all starting to sound a bit unrealistic, isn’t it?

For instance, it doesn’t take an accountant or CFO to recognize that even the “basic conditions” of the workplace, as Sirota describes them, might be costly. State-of-art equipment and facilities requires capital expenditure that a business may just not have. Likewise, insuring that each and every employee is completely satisfied with his or her organizational role, or experiencing a sense of achievement is no mean feat either. After all, somebody has to empty the wastebaskets, right? As for fostering a sense of camaraderie amongst employees – well, that smacks of too much time being spent around the water-cooler, if you know what I mean. Employees are paid to work, after all, not “connect” with each other.

So for the next post in this series, I’ll take a closer look at how realistic all of this may or may not be. Is it possible to meet these three needs—and thus engage your workers in the way that Sirota and his colleagues described—without breaking the bank?

Or is this just too much to expect, given the perhaps inherent selfishness of the human animal..?

 

Next in the series: Give them an inch

 


Endnotes:

[1] Please see my series of posts: “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1,2&3)”

[2] Please see my posts: “Why that MBA might not be worth as much as you think,” and “The one best way (to manage)

[3] Please see my post “Managing: An art? Or a science..?

[4] Please see my post “Why that MBA might not be worth as much as you think.”

[5] Managing by Henry Mintzberg, 2009, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.), p. 12.

[6] “The Manager Paradox” by Thomas O. Davenport, Workforce Solutions Review, October/November, 2013, p. 8.

[7] I have so far been unable to determine precisely who, or precisely when this particular management cliché was first uttered. (If you happen to know, please post this info in the comments section below.) I would simply refer you to this instance in 1993, when it appeared in a Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams. http://dilbert.com/strip/1993-03-03. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2017.

[8] All statistics from 12, The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter. 2006. (New York: Gallup Press), and references therein.

[9] The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Micheal Irwin Metzer, 2005 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing), p. 41.

[10] Ibid., p. 26.

[11] Ibid., p. xxix.

[12] In his text, Sirota observes “Contrary to popular belief, employees don’t expect wildly generous pay for their labors. In fact, they would likely question the motives or competence of management if pay were astonishingly high” (p. 81).

[13] Ibid., p. 9.

[14] Ibid., p. 10.

[15] Ibid., p. 11.

[16] Ibid., p. 14.

[17] Ibid., p. 15.

[18] Ibid., p. 204.

[19] Ibid., p. 195.

[20] Ibid., p. 127.

[21] Ibid., p. 17.

[22]12, The Elements of Great Managing, op. cit.