With employee engagement all the buzz these days, you can’t overstate the importance of the relationships employees have with their managers. Case in point: an article in the Harvard Business Review about employee engagement focuses entirely on the role of the manager. It cites a Gallup study revealing that 70 percent of the difference in employee engagement scores between those who are most engaged and those who are least engaged is the result of the employees’ relationships with their managers.
Coincidentally—or not?—that same study shows that 70 percent of managers are not prepared or suited for their role as manager.
So what makes a good manager? What are the qualities that inspire and motivate, nurture and elevate, cheer and steer? What behaviors and characteristics spark people to want to do their best at work each day?
Surprisingly, it’s not God-given traits like genius, beauty and gregariousness. Rather, it’s qualities people can learn, practice and develop, like listening and telling the truth. Skills that are completely within reach of most mortals.
For example, Harvard Business Review highlights a few examples of great management behaviors that aren’t rocket science and are perfectly doable: Effective managers work the same hours they expect their team to work, distribute assignments fairly, model what it means to be authentically engaged in their job and perhaps most important, carve out regular, individual time to meet with each employee they supervise.
Forbes supports these practices and cites Gallup research showing that having a personal relationship with the manager is the biggest predictor of employee engagement—negative and positive. That is, those who spend the most individual time with their managers are most engaged and those who have the least one-on-one time with their managers are the least engaged/most disengaged.
(Side note: I wonder, is it possible to have too much alone time with one’s manager? Is there a point of diminishing, or worse, reverse returns where you end up discouraging engagement? Apparently not, according to the research.)
If that isn’t convincing enough, Dale Carnegie Training has done studies showing that of the approximately 25 percent of employees who are engaged at work, the primary reason for their engagement is their connection with their manager. So it makes sense to make time to build relationships with employees. Here are proven best practices to help managers do just that.
Tell the truth
It’s the only way to build trust. Don’t beat around the bush when it comes to bad news, skirt hot-button issues or misrepresent the facts. Inspiring managers motivate people by being real people—honest and authentic.
Talk openly about compensation
At Google, managers share information with their teams about how they compensate staff and how that compares to other companies. In addition, employees can attend live video chats with the company’s VP of compensation to ask questions about expectations, pay policies and how managers determine annual pay and bonuses.
Walk the walk
You don’t need to be a work geek or sell your soul to the company, but you do need to believe in your company’s mission, internalize its vision, and be confident and unwavering in the decisions you make to support that mission and vision.
Use your talent wisely
Everyone feels better when they feel they’re good at their job—and success breeds success. So take the time to understand your people’s strengths and put people in roles where they can shine. The results are much more satisfying than trying to mold someone to fit a job, like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
Make one-on-ones a priority
Here’s how it feels when your manager cancels a one-on-one with you: discouraging and deflating. Big time. Make it a priority to schedule regular one-on-ones and honor them. The return on investment is continued engagement and productivity.
Face problems head-on
It may feel uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to put out fires, referee conflicts and be the “bad cop.” It’s part of being a leader and key to earning trust in your leadership—in good times and bad—otherwise you lose credibility and worse, you gain disengaged employees.
Wear your passion on your sleeve
If you’re psyched about work, it’s infectious and your team will catch the excitement. If you’re bored or indifferent, you can’t expect more than indifference from your team.
Have their back
Always assume positive intent when one of your team is called out on a mistake or wrongdoing. Unless they’ve done something knowingly and blatantly egregious, stand up for them, protect them, steer them around potential land mines and pick them up when they fall down.
Get to know your players
Learn what makes them tick, their gifts and passions, and then use this information to help them achieve their potential. That might be assigning them to projects that interest them, teaming them up with a compatible partner, or simply understanding whether they prefer to receive information verbally or in writing.
Be obvious and predictable
Don’t make your employees read between the lines to decode your true intent. Similarly, don’t behave erratically so they walk on eggshells trying to figure out you or your next move. Share what you know and admit what you don’t.
It’s OK to be human and say you have concerns, but even if you’re feeling panicked and pressured, try to stay calm outwardly and model a cool, thoughtful head. Even if you’re freaking out inside, remember, panic spreads and leads to chaos, so fake it if you don’t feel it.
Be a person
While it’s important to stay cool in crisis, it’s OK, even desired, to show your full range of feelings and for your team to know it’s OK to share their joys and sorrows. Express emotion when appropriate. Share in people’s personal triumphs and sadness. Validate and accept their feelings. Celebrate their weddings and babies and show support for their losses, hard times and illnesses. Be someone they can open up to, even if it means witnessing tears or awkward moments at times.
Be a team leader
Put your success behind your team’s success. After all, your success depends on the success of your team—and so does your failure. Share the credit generously when your team knocks it out of the park and bear it graciously when it fails. Even better: take the hit when your team fails and at all costs, don’t ever voice blame.
Bottom line: Don’t think about what your people can do for you. Think about what you can do to help your people shine.
It would be easy to assume Google tops Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list because of all its renowned perks and generous benefits. Who wouldn’t love free breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks every day and on-site massages and car maintenance? But there’s more to Google’s winning workplace formula: Google treats the role of the manager as an art and a science, and proactively cultivates great managers.
It starts by recognizing that great management skills can be learned and are not the exclusive domain of those born with uncanny charisma. Google studies the characteristics of its managers who earn the highest leadership scores from their reports and identifies which qualities make them so popular—and their teams so productive. (Funny how their popularity and productivity scores go hand-in-hand.)
Then Google provides ongoing training and testing to help its managers develop the specific qualities proven to increase employee engagement at the company. In addition, they’ve devised tools to measure these specific qualities and behaviors in action, so they can continue to guide and nurture their managers over time to help them embrace and develop these skills.
Seems like a lot of work, resources and investment to train great managers, but according to Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of people operations, “Our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier—they do everything better.”
I’d say that’s a decent return on your management training investment.
Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a best place to work.
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