The data don’t lie. Too many of us are bad managers. And yet a single positive interaction with an employee can permanently boost engagement, combat “quiet quitting”, and forge genuine long-term trust, all of which make for better performance. None of this is rocket science. So why are employee engagement scores in the dumps? More importantly, what should we do about it?
- Demonstrate the extent of employee disengagement and the primacy of manager quality in driving engagement
- Assert the Central Axiom of Management and how repeatedly living up to simple principles in each interaction can create long-term trust and solve major systemic engagement problems.
- Only 23% of the world’s employees are engaged, and the biggest driver of (dis)engagement is the person’s manager. Logically, then, there are a LOT of bad managers.
- What is management? The core of the manager-employee relationship can be expressed axiomatically as the conditional grant of autonomy in exchange for visibility, which, over time, engenders genuine trust.
- Despite it being in each party’s rational interest to cooperate in this “transaction”, it is evidently not happening. While employee performance can be a factor, the manager likely deserves the blame. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that companies do little to formally train managers or address their performance.
- The phenomenon of “quiet quitting” is essentially a manifestation of a breach in the social contract in the workplace.
- There is a need for far greater emphasis on managerial training not just to improve scores, but to create a healthier, less corrosive workplace for each employee.
For fifteen years now, Gallup, the workplace analytics and polling company, has conducted a global study to measure employee engagement called the State of the Global Workplace. Recently, during my nearly year-long stint as Interim Chief People Officer, I took a deep dive into their work as I was contemplating a new framework that our company might use to measure and manage employee satisfaction. In my review of their approach, I came across two data points that now completely color my thinking on the matter.
One can view the term engagement as being related to satisfaction. The difference is that, at least in Gallup’s use, engagement is a construct that brings together a variety of elements that influence how an individual perceives the workplace. In this sense, it goes beyond the mechanical elements of work and touches on social and psychological elements as well.
The term “engagement” feels a little touchy-feely. It’s not. Engagement is THE leading indicator of retention and, as Gallup is able to show, highly correlated with business performance.
As for the numbers themselves, I thought they might be low following the “Great Resignation”. Nevertheless—and despite the fact that engagement is inching up since the pandemic and that these scores vary by country and region (US/North America tops the list at 33%, Europe brings up the rear at 15%)—this is a disturbingly low number! Of the 77% who are not engaged, Gallup estimates that 19% (one in every five people!) are so disengaged that they regularly act in ways that undermine their organizations. The remaining 58%, the clear majority, are the so-called “quiet quitters”, a group Gallup defines those who exert the minimum required effort, but are psychologically disconnected and more likely to be stressed and burnt out.
This sentence is how a statistician would say that the main reason employees are engaged is because they have good managers, and the main reason employees are disengaged is because they have bad ones. Good managers make for happy, productive employees who stick around. Bad managers can lead people to become so dissatisfied that they initially retreat and subsequently quit, whether “quietly” or out loud.
Now, it does not require great mental agility to join the dots on this. Anyone who has ever worked for someone else will have first-hand knowledge of how a manager’s behavior influenced her/his mood and performance, for better and sometimes for worse. But if you were to ask most people about what drives people’s satisfaction and engagement at work, I suspect they would severely underestimate the impact of the manager and throw in a lot of other reasons that simply don’t move the needle nearly as much.
Together, these two data points lead us to a troubling and inescapable conclusion:
There are a LOT of lousy managers in the workplace. A LOT.
And actually, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that a great many of them are either unaware or would never even entertain the notion that they are bad managers. Instead, they operate under the manifestly erroneous belief that they are good ones.1 Let’s be honest: it is human nature to protect our sensitive egos and think we’re better at things than we might actually be.
If you’re saying to yourself, “Well, that can’t be me!”, I’ve got news for you. The data don’t lie. From purely a numerical point of view, we all need to be open to the very real possibility that we are part of the problem, as managers and as leaders. ((By way of a personal example, I once led a team that had an employee NPS score of 75, which is extremely high. And yet, at the same time, I know that there were two aspects of my leadership style that would occasionally rub people the wrong way. I am lucky that I had people with the courage to share that with me, and it remains front of mind in my professional interactions.))
Why is that? Come sit down in my office and let’s have a chat.
People who write about management tell you that you should never have to order people to do things. If your employees only do things because they fear retribution or because you feel you have to make decisions for them, it is indicative of a broken relationship. Raw power plays, especially those driven by your own insecurities, are unquestionably the least desirable way to get people to do things in any walk of life.
“Good” leaders, say those same people, are those who people choose to follow regardless of whether they have a direct reporting line. As if leadership were some mystical alchemy of charisma and great ideas and nice teeth.
The reality is simpler.
The crux of the manager-employee relationship is, first and foremost, a simple transaction.
The Central Axiom of Management
What is the opposite of commanding people to do things? What is the opposite of feeling you need to participate in decisions? The most compelling answers to these questions can be found in an excellent book by former US Navy submarine Captain David Marquet called Turn the Ship Around!
The opposite of telling people what to do involves pushing not just work, but the ability to decide how that work gets done, down to the lowest competent level of the organization. For those are the people who are the closest to the situation. They are invariably the most informed. And they were hired precisely because they have the competence to do the work.
That does not, however, mean managers can or should close their eyes once the work is delegated. Managers have an obligation to know how well that task has been done, for which they need to see the final work product. They may need even need to see the work in progress depending on the circumstances, like for complex or sensitive tasks or to understand how new employees operate. The visibility they get can be verbal or written, formal or informal. What’s important is that they get it.
These two elements allow us to state a Central Axiom of Management.
Autonomy is a simple concept: it means that, as long as a task gets done, the person doing it gets to decide how it gets done.2 Now, the reality is that managers can, and sometimes should, point employees toward a given destination. But that’s very different from giving turn-by-turn directions.
The grant of autonomy here is important. You have presumably not hired someone to be a mindless automaton; you want people who can make good decisions. The visibility condition ensures this. Moreover, the nature of the task and visibility being requested can be adjusted. Thus, if you’ve got a new employee (for example), you have the ability to modulate the size of the grant and the means by which you obtain visibility.
Let’s be even more specific and identify the obligations of each party in the transaction.
In any process of delegation, the manager should do the following:
Be clear and complete about what needs to get done and when. What does success look like? What are the deliverables? What is the deadline? What other pertinent information does the person need? Are there others they may need to work with? Are there any “hot button” issues or sensitivities the person needs to be aware of?
Set expectations about visibility. Explain what proof points you want to see, and how frequently you want to be updated, by what medium or what data.
Confirm the handoff. Ask the employee if s/he is clear on all items or needs help or guidance to get started. This act is essentially the moment where the handoff happens. The employee needs to respond affirmatively to the ask, or the delegation should not happen.
Now, it is invariably helpful to provide context around why something needs to get done as this improves decision-making and helps with managing risk and uncertainty. But it is not strictly necessary.
The employee’s responsibility is to line up her/his actions with the manager’s. Employees should therefore:
Ensure complete clarity about the task, asking questions as needed.
Provide visibility as requested.
As both parties follow through on their obligations, there are opportunities for interaction. Ideally, the manager will be watching things unfold as they should. Where that isn’t happening, the parties need to address the issues. Once the task is completed, the parties should acknowledge that it is done. Ideally, the parties will talk about performance as well. If the employee has been largely effective, the manager should provide positive feedback. Likewise, if something didn’t go to plan, the parties should explore what happened, why it happened, and how it could be avoided in the future.
It really isn’t that complicated.
Tit-for-tat and the origin of trust
In the language of game theory, there is an optimal strategy for both manager and employee. Because the “game” they play grants benefits to both people and neither party knows yet when the game will end, there is an incentive to cooperate. This is called a tit-for-tat strategy, and it means that each party acts in ways that are consistent with how the other acted just prior. Thus, if the manager has provided everything needed for the employee to be successful, then the employee’s optimal strategy is to perform well and provided the desired feedback. Consequently, with the employee performing well, the manager’s optimal strategy is to, again, provided everything needed for the employee to be successful. And so on, and so on.
Clearly, in these repeated “games”, we can see the building blocks of trust. More beneficially, the tit-for-tat strategy allows the manager to exhibit the three most desirable Cs that any manager can exhibit:
Consistency in actions and decisions gives employees confidence because it allows them to anticipate outcomes and learn how to best interact with a completely different person. Consistency is not rigidity in terms of thought or strategy or substance. Rather, it is the expectation that a manager will operate in a fair, predictable, non-erratic way.
Confidence is conviction. It is the absence of doubt that an employee will be successful, even when you’re not looking. Confidence is the trust employees have earned. It the foundation by which they, deservedly, acquire greater responsibilities. It opens doors for new assignments and professional development, which is what most want. And there is nothing employees like to hear more than their manager’s expression of gratitude grounded in trust.
There are few behaviors in the workplace that inspire more loyalty than public recognition of the employee’s potential and achievements. Championing goes beyond that. It exposes the organization to the employee’s great work and puts people on the path to promotion. Championing is also a grant: a selfless extension of one’s own credibility and impact that the employee would not have ordinarily had.
Where it falls down
There are numerous places where the relationship can break down. Let’s be clear though: short of an objective performance problem with the employee (bad work or bad communication), the fault for this lies with the manager. These managerial faults include:
Imprecise, incomplete, or even misleading transmission of information, especially on sensitive matters
Not testing for comprehension of the task
Micromanagement and other delegation problems
Being too busy doing one’s own work (which includes the manager’s own productivity failures and poor execution) and therefore not paying attention to the employee’s execution
Ignoring needs of the team or more likely missing out on the bigger picture by being too tactical
Ignoring the employee’s individual needs, which include things like workload and morale
Failure by the manager to manage up, thereby exposing the team to the vicissitudes of other (potentially poor) managers
The manager’s own disengagement, which then colors what s/he transmit to employees
Much of this is objectively trainable, but that’s not really the issue. Assuming that the person is not a sociopath (which, in some companies, is a poor assumption), the causes of poor managerial performance are threefold.
Lack of training
Companies pay far too little attention to training new managers and spend even less time ensuring experienced managers are infused with the company’s values and culture and build skills to reinforce desired behaviors. Even in cases where companies measure managerial performance, the consequences of bad performance tend to be limited and uneven.
Lack of self awareness
Our own egos and internal voices blind us to the possibility that we are not the great managers we believe ourselves to be. Self-awareness—real, occasionally painful, but ultimately edifying—is regrettably uncommon. A big part of the reason is the lack of feedback. Delivering critical feedback, even if it is constructive, is something most of us would prefer to avoid, and too few people proactively seek feedback on their weaknesses.
Their own poor managers!
We have already accepted the fact that there are a lot of poor managers. It’s easy therefore to see how there could be more than just one. Consider the impact of this. Most employees typically gain visibility and insight into corporate vision, policy, and priorities by virtue of the information and sentiment transmitted by their managers. The propagation risk of bad management is therefore much higher when you have a manager who works for a poor role model. It’ll be turtles all the way down.
The “quiet quitting” phenomenon is worthy of a brief aside. I find the term itself—specifically, the use of the word “quitting”—misleading and even stigmatizing. After all, there is nothing wrong with not going the extra mile. Jobs have performance criteria. What matters is that these criteria are achieved. Employees are not intrinsically obliged to exceed them, or offer discretionary energy. Nor must every employee be ambitious or growth-minded.
Similarly, none of us are obliged to feel psychologically connected to, much less blissful about, our jobs. What matters, to put it crudely, is that we’re not being jerks to our colleagues. But this is where things get interesting.
Most of us in Western societies, knowingly or subconsciously, have been imbued with a belief in the social contract, a political/philosophical construct that arose during the Age of Enlightenment. At its core, the social contract is essentially an agreement between participants in a society that allows them to live peacefully, with freedoms that are equal and indivisible and cannot be trammeled. Social contract theory speaks explicitly to the relationship between governors and the governed and provides the basis for fair and respectful interaction. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the concepts which underlie the broader social contract seep into and find traction in the workplace. The disconnects people feel in the workplace are rooted in the breach of this contract. Put differently, employees have expectations about how they will be treated, not just physically, but psychologically as well.
So, while the performance element of “quiet quitting” isn’t inherently problematic, the psychological element is. People who feel mistreated at work exhibit (amongst other things) greater stress, a condition that spills negativity across the workplace and even into their personal lives. If you consider that, per Gallup, nearly six in every ten people fall into this category, the implications for the workplace are alarming. And yet, these people are not totally lost. Gallup believes, and I agree, that they can be turned around. The best way of doing this is by pairing them up with great managers.
Conclusions and thoughts on a professional social contract
It is obvious from the data points above that companies—by which I specifically mean the most senior leaders in every company—should be doing a lot more to improve managerial quality. We will explore this in a future post, but it should be clear to everyone that this is far and away the best way to move the needle on employee engagement. Higher engagement can be directly tied to improved retention and better business performance. To get there we need better managers, and that starts with ourselves.
Every desirable behavior we can imagine in a company arises from ensuring positive transactions between managers and employees. The good news is that, when the first transaction is positive, there is a high degree of likelihood that subsequent transactions will be as well. And even if the first transaction isn’t positive, our ability to make a future transaction positive tilts the balance of the entire game toward a positive outcome. The bad news is that, far too often, the first transaction isn’t positive and people don’t take steps—or know which steps to take—to rectify the problem. The solutions aren’t complicated.
I have been deliberately reductionist in proposing a Central Axiom of Management. Clearly these “transactions” are not mechanical, especially in disciplines where the currency is information or knowledge. Invariably, the manager is the primary lens and semantic layer by which the employee understands what is happening in a company, why it is happening, and how it impacts them. How the manager exposes and translates information to the employee naturally colors the employee’s views. The better the manager, the clearer the sense of purpose, the greater the belief, the more engaged the employee, the better the execution. This starts at the top of the org chart and goes all the way down.
The challenges of modern management and leadership have to be seen in this light. They relate to our ability to bridge the chasm between our intrinsic human needs and the mechanics and structure our companies provide to channel information and interactions. In this context, the breaches in the social contract that people experience don’t just erode their own confidence and performance, they corrode the entire workplace. And even if you don’t feel a moral compulsion to uphold that contract, you should think twice about what it means to spend six or eight or ten (or more) hours a day in a corrosive environment.
Consider the workplaces that have shaped you. What if we all took a step back and reevaluated our roles not just as managers or employees, but as active contributors to this social contract? What would our corporate world look like then?
Think about your own management and leadership style in this context. Ask yourself: “Am I engaging with people constructively and consistently? Am I doing the basics right so I can foster an environment that is conducive to the development of trust and empowerment? Am I allowing my own feelings of vulnerability to stand in the way of actually being more successful?”
Whether we like it or not, our workplaces are microcosms of society. If we want our work societies to function well, then we need to do our part as leaders to make that happen.
The performance of our businesses depends on it.
- To be fair, another reason for low engagement scores is that managers simply don’t care about their employees. I haven’t pursued this as I would like to assume that most companies, sooner or later, get rid of the obvious sociopaths and Machiavellians. Nevertheless, I am 100% certain that not all of them do. And all it takes is one to sour the cultural milk.
- I presume the task is being done ethically and with a sense of personal integrity. if it is not, then the employee needs to be immediately reprimanded and probably terminated.