21st February, 2019
While there’s a natural tendency to want to “think big” in business, much effective management is actually the result of thinking small.
With complete respect for arguably the greatest advertising campaign ever (Doyle Dane Bernbach’s “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen from the 1950s), being able to ‘think small’ has real applicability for how managers relate to their employees on a day-to-day basis.
Fact: Employee surveys consistently show that the single most important factor in employee engagement is an employee’s relationship with his or her direct manager.
No thoughtful business person would argue that big, visionary, strategic thinking is unimportant to an organization. But the reality is such thinking is generally the province of an organization’s senior management. In the managerial trenches, however, where the vast majority of managers reside, the emphasis is on keeping operations moving, deadlines met, costs contained, and ‘trains running on time.’ Thus, the nature of the manager-employee relationship is often shaped less by strategic matters than by the myriad of small, moment-to-moment interactions that ultimately determine how an employee feels about his or her manager… and therefore the organization. This is the thread from which the cloth is made.
Given this context, here are five small, easy things managers can do – surprisingly often neglected – that can make a positive difference in a manager-employee relationship.
Return messages quickly – Simple and appreciated. Ignoring employee messages, or waiting a long time to respond, conveys, “Your issues aren’t important to me.” I once worked with a very knowledgeable senior executive who routinely took weeks to return messages, which he would then do thoroughly and thoughtfully. Of course by that time the original issue was either resolved, out of date or long forgotten.
Be on time for meetings – Similarly, chronic lateness sends the clear message, “My time is more important than yours.” Early in my career I reported to a VP who was always at least 20 minutes late for her own staff meetings… and that time quickly turned into a gripe session in which her capable but frustrated staff spent the wasted time discussing the manger’s shortcomings – unnecessarily undermining an otherwise capable leader.
Express EXPR -4.66% appreciation for a job well done. The power of a sincere, well-timed thank you is significant. Again, this gesture is small, free, obvious – and often neglected.
Take a genuine interest in your employees. Learn some details about their lives outside of work. Outside problems shape inside performance. A small amount of honest interest concern will be appreciated and go a long way to building loyalty.
Be there. As fundamental as it gets. You can’t manage effectively if you’re not available. Keep an open door. Make yourself available for questions and problems as much as reasonably possible. While this may sound simple, the fact is, with numerous competing demands on a manager’s time, it’s easy to be distracted and irritated when questions arise. It’s a mindset of availability. Even a manager who’s on the road a lot but checks and returns messages promptly can effectively “be there” when physically distant.
One concluding note: Such conscientious treatment is in no way an abdication of managerial authority. I always favored a considerate approach not because it was nice but because it was effective. Management isn’t a dinner party. In any organization, stuff needs to get done. All the time. On time. Every manager needs authority. But over the long term respect is a more powerful lever than fear. With a deadline looming and a project on the line, employees most readily give their all for a person they like and respect.
Recognition is one of those persistent management puzzles. It’s easy to provide yet frequently neglected, often with negative consequences for employees, management and entire organizations. Now, some helpful new research further explores this situation, examining, among other things, how recognition affects retention.
The study, “The Effects of Employee Recognition and Appreciation,” was conducted by TINYpulse, an employee engagement and research firm, and involved surveys with over 4,500 employees in some 500 organizations. Their main conclusions? Retention is tied to recognition – yet a significant majority of employees (79%) “don’t feel strongly valued for the work they put in.”
Let’s review some of the key findings in more detail.
The recognition/retention connection – Despite the fact that recognition is chronically in short supply, it plays an important role in keeping employees satisfied and productive. The survey report states, “We found a strong relationship (r = 0.56) between how valued an employee feels at work and the likelihood that they would reapply to their job.” In other words, the data showed a solid correlation between employees’ feeling valued and their overall feelings about their job situation. Not surprising, but it’s always useful to put quantitative data behind qualitative scenarios.
Feeling appreciated improves employee relationships – The survey results emphasized the importance of peer relationships in the workplace. As the report noted, “Employees want to recognize their peers. When someone feels valued, they’re more likely to rate their colleague with a higher score.” 70% of employees felt their peers were the most important factor in creating “an engaging environment.” In contrast, official perks “such as work functions, parties, or amenities” received only an 8% score. The bottom line is that goodwill is contagious; appropriately high levels of management recognition can have a positive ripple effect.
The core importance of the manager – employee relationship – These survey results add to the vast body of research confirming the fundamental importance of the relationship between direct manager and employee. Employees want to work for managers who recognize their contributions. “Our research validated that point,” the report noted. “There’s a relationship between how valued an employee feels and how highly they would rate their direct supervisor (r = 0.35).” And naturally, feelings about one’s manager influence one’s attitude to the job and likelihood to remain in it.
Overall, these recognition-related findings were entirely consistent with my own management experience. As I’ve explained before in this space, during nearly a quarter century in management I was involved in a multitude of employee surveys, and the one issue that recurred in literally every single one of them was employee recognition. Employees never got enough of it – invariably it was a pain point.
This current survey report also included a broad, macro-level observation. “When you take into consideration the high cost of turnover and an increasingly improving job market, these findings ought to get you thinking about your own recognition strategies. How can you expect employees to stay at your organization if they’re not getting the appreciation they deserve?”
It’s an entirely fair, commonsense question.
It’s also one that in many organizations doesn’t receive a clear answer.
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Victor is author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).