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OPINION: The one thing you think you know about managing is wrong

Being a manager means being “in charge”, right? As a manager, you’re “the boss.”

You do the telling, while your employees do the listening – and then the doing. What to do, how to do it, and by when. That’s for you to decide (or at least approve), not anyone else.

Of course, your own management style may not be nearly as authoritarian as that probably sounds. You’re probably comfortable “empowering” your employees – that is, giving them the freedom to do their jobs as they best see fit (on occasion, at least). Or maybe you only weigh in when you’re asked to, or when your input is obviously needed.

Still, should push come to shove and you and one of your employees disagree on something, you both probably understand that it’s your opinion that rules the day, not theirs. You’re the top dog, after all – the big cheese, the head honcho. The “decider.” And that’s just how things have to be if your organization is to have even a chance of succeeding. Anything less would seem to invite chaos, and risk organizational disaster.

Or so you probably think.

Unfortunately, however, there isn’t a shred of evidence to back any of this up.

In fact, according to the best available research just the opposite is true. Investigations by Google, The Gallup Organization, Harvard, and researchers associated with The Wharton School all show that managers are more successful—and their organizations are more profitable—when they behave as if their employees are in charge of them.

You’re much better off, in other words, behaving as if your employees are the boss of you, as opposed to the other way around.

Consider Google’s study. According to the global search engine company, their most effective managers possess many, if not all of following ten (10) traits[1]:

  • (1) Is a good coach
  • (2) Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • (3) Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  • (4) Is productive and results-oriented
  • (5) Is a good communicator – listens and shares information
  • (6) Supports career development and discusses performance
  • (7) Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  • (8) Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  • (9) Collaborates across Google
  • (10) Is a strong decision maker

 

Managers who exhibited these characteristics were more likely to see their workgroups score higher on a variety of productivity measures, including collaboration, “getting work done,” and innovation. They also experienced lower turnover, and reported greater job satisfaction.

A study of good management practices by The Gallup Organization reached similar conclusions.

Well-managed employees—or what these researchers defined as “engaged” workers—could be shown to outperform their industry peers in a variety of measurable ways. For instance:

Among publicly traded companies, earnings-per-share of organizations employing highly engaged workers was 18 percent higher than that of their competitors, and over time progressed at a faster rate.

– Better managed, and therefore more engaged teams were more than twice as likely to succeed. Teams in the top quartile of engagement were three times as likely to succeed, and averaged 18 percent higher productivity and 12 percent higher profitability.

– High team engagement correlated strongly with higher customer service scores.

– Engaged employees averaged 27% less absenteeism than those considered actively disengaged.[2]

 

Critical to “great managing,”, Gallup concluded, is getting (and keeping) employees engaged in their work – something best accomplished by engaging in specific workplace practices and behaviors.

Gallup refers to these as the twelve (12) “elements” of great managing, and while copyright prevents me from reprinting them for you here, suffice it to say their list is not so different from Google’s. In fact, the parallels are striking. For example, having a manager who provides employees with clear job expectations, encourages career development, and takes employee opinions seriously were all deemed crucial.

Far more important than any of their more cosmetic similarities is the underlying theme both Google’s and Gallup’s lists share. And that is: “Good management” seems to consist almost entirely of doing things for your employees.

That’s worth repeating.

The best managers—that is, the most effective—do things for their employees. They don’t do things to them, nor do they expect things of them. Directing, controlling, and evaluating, for instance are nowhere to be found on these lists. Yet they are amongst the behaviors most closely associated with the management role. Same is true for monitoring employee performance, or hiring and firing; not a mention.

Research associated with The Wharton School only reinforces this.

For this study, “good management” was defined as that which results in more engaged employees – or what they termed “enthusiastic” employees. According to one study cited, they are as much as 40 percent more productive than their less motivated counterparts.

Critical to achieving the hoped-for levels of enthusiasm was again found to be best achieved by doing things for employees – or by satisfying three (3) basic employee “needs”, as these researchers framed it. They include the need for:[3]

(1) Equity – Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully by their employers, these researcher found – especially when it comes to compensation. But equitable treatment also includes the desire for a safe work environment, as well as humane working conditions, satisfactory benefits, some degree of job security, and to be given a fair hearing for any complaints they might have.

(2) Achievement – The opportunity to take pride in one’s work is also important to most workers, this research showed. Human beings have an innate desire to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done, and to receive recognition for their efforts. Most people also look to take pride in the achievements of their organization as a whole.

(3) Camaraderie – Workers are happier and more satisfied when warm, interesting, and cooperative relationships develop between themselves and their co-workers. This is a feeling that often results from successful cooperative effort.

 

Again, note the broader theme. Managers are at their most effective when they are doing things for employees – in this case, fulfilling certain workplace “needs.” It is support, not control, that is key. This is the critical insight.

A Harvard study further affirms this.

For this investigation, freshman managers were surveyed as they transitioned into their new role. It turns out that the term “support” was frequently relied upon in survey responses, as these excerpts show (my emphasis in each case):[4]

You have to…listen to and support your people.

What does he [the employee] need from the manager? Support, guidance, training…

I’m paid for making my quota, but my job is to support and develop my people…

It is best to lead by example and with support.

You have to let them go out and do their job and not get in the way. Be helpful and supportive

These managers also appeared to realize that support was what their employees expected of them (again my emphasis):

I think the first thing they [subordinates] expect is support. They expect that if they’re out doing their job as they think it should be done and as it has been outlined for them, that they’re going to get my support.

I guess the key underlying thing is: Is [a manager] a caring person and supportive?

I didn’t get religion right afterward [promotion to management]. But there was a greater awareness that they [employees] thought that I should work for them.

 

According to the best available research then, acting as if you’re “in charge” is the wrong way to manage. In fact, that attitude may do you more harm than good. Far better for you, as a manager, to support your employees and give the things that they want, or otherwise need.

So listen.

Be understanding.

And whenever possible, give them what they ask for. You’ll be a better manager if you do. As the Wharton study gently puts it:

Companies profit when managers give employees what they want.[5]

 

—–

[1] Google’s ‘Project Oxygen.’ First reported in 2008, updated in 2018. Available as a free download at https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/.

[2] Wagner, Rodd and James K. Harter. 2006. 12, The Elements of Great Managing, New York: Gallup Press.

[3] Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. 2005. The Enthusiastic Employee. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

[4] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[5] Sirota, et. al.

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