How to be a better manager? Look at your role from the point of view of the employee
Julian Birkinshaw, December 12, 2011
There are many books written on management and leadership, but most are from the perspective of the manager – the one doing the managing. Such books are typically based on interviews with managers, in which they talk about the things they do and the approach they use; they typically offer advice to help today’s and tomorrow’s managers do their jobs better.
While there is value in such books, it is noteworthy how little attention is paid to the fears, doubts, aspirations or needs of the employee - the person being managed. And this focus on the person doing the managing, rather than the one being managed, serves to perpetuate a lot of our traditional assumptions about management being a top-down and control-oriented activity.
Our recent study focused instead on an employee- centred approach to management - from the view that management is about "seeing the world through the eyes of the employee". We interviewed more than 50 employees across a dozen companies and we collected questionnaire data from more than 200 staff. We wanted to get their views on the aspects of their work they found motivating and engaging, as well as the concerns, fears or frustrations that got in the way of them delivering their best work. We then asked them more narrowly about their relationship with their immediate boss and the things he or she did to shape the working environment for individual employees (in a positive or negative way).
What did we discover? Employees have a pretty clear sense of what makes their work engaging: they want responsibility for doing something worthwhile; they want a high level of freedom in how they achieve their results; they crave the opportunity to extend themselves and to develop expertise and to work with good colleagues; and they want recognition from those around them for doing a good job.
None of this is surprising - they are all things we can instantly recognise as important and valuable. The surprise, rather, is so many people, in very different working environments, find themselves doing work that does not have these attributes.
The list of employee fears, concerns and frustrations we identified was extremely long. But we quickly realised that it could be mapped against Maslow's widely recognised hierarchy of needs, as shown above. So the basic fear of losing your job is analogous to the need for food and shelter. Once this fear has been allayed, other concerns, such as not fitting in as well as you might like, or not getting the personal development opportunities you crave, start to surface.
This way of framing staff interests has clear value to employers. For example, if your employees express concerns about their personal development and their worries about not delivering against expectations, it is likely that they are not worried about job security and fitting in, the lower rungs of the hierarchy of fears. Equally, for employees that express concern about job security and fitting in, it is unlikely the higher rungs on the hierarchy are even on their radar screens. In which case, any initiatives directed at higher level concerns that don't first address lower level concerns are likely to be a waste of time.
Finally, we asked people about their bosses, and what made them effective or ineffective. Again, answers were remarkably consistent - and predictable. Good bosses, they said, give their employees challenging work to do, they create space, they provide support as needed, they give recognition and praise and they are not afraid to make tough decisions when necessary. Interestingly, Google did a big data-driven exercise to define "good management" earlier this year and it came to a similar set of conclusions. Its top tips were: be a good coach, empower your team and don't micromanage, and express interest in team members' success and personal wellbeing.
The fact that our and Google's lists are so similar caused us to take our research in a slightly different direction.
If it is so easy to draw up a list of what makes an effective manager, why are there so many bad managers out there? Why do so many people fail to walk the talk? And, given that this gap exists and has existed for a long time, what can we do about it?
Why don't people better manage their staff?
We asked many of our interviewees about the inability of smart, well-intentioned managers to do what they know to be right. There seem to be three broad sets of answers:
Managing well is harder than it seems
For most aspects of management, it is possible to get it wrong in both directions. So, while giving employees space to act is a good thing, it is also possible to give them too much space; and challenging tasks are good, but impossible tasks are not. Balance is the key in all these areas. What makes this difficult is that each employee has his/her own unique set of skills and motivations. So the right balance for one person is likely to be the wrong balance for the next. One employee might praise you for giving her an exciting project to do; the next is cursing you for leaving him stranded.
Managers have competing priorities and limited time
If you only had a single direct report, it would be fairly straightforward to structure her work to make it suitably challenging. But many managers have five or six people reporting to them, each with different needs, as well as their own work to do and calls on their time from dozens of other people across the organisation. Throw all these things into the mix, and then add whatever economic or corporate crisis has just hit, and it is no surprise that even the most well-intentioned and skilled executives fail to do the managerial part of their jobs well on a consistent basis. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
Managing well requires non-intuitive behaviour
Being a good manager requires us to act in non-intuitive or 'unnatural' ways. Academic research has shown most people are (innately) fairly selfish, control-oriented and risk-averse. There is nothing wrong with these traits - they are inherited things our forebears passed on to us and they have helped us to survive. But a good manager is more focused on her people than his or herself; he or she is prepared to delegate rather than stay on top of everything; and is open to taking a few risks and allowing mistakes to occur as a way of helping others to learn and develop. For most of us, doing these things goes against our "gut" instinct. And the more unpredictable or uncertain the business environment, the harder this becomes. At times of crisis, for example, our immediate reaction is to try and bring control back to the centre, so that we are on top of everything. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong thing to do, because it is the people on the front line who are best positioned to respond quickly, and correctly, to a fast-changing set of circumstances.
How can you become a better manager?
1 See the world through the employee's eyes - on a regular basis.
One of the hallmarks of effective managers is the ability to put themselves in their employee's shoes. This isn't just a thought experiment: it is about creating simple changes in practice or behaviour that force you to take the employee's perspective. Vehicles for doing this include: 'skip level' meetings where you talk with people two or three levels below you; web-enabled discussion forums where people many levels below you have a chance to pose direct questions to you; frontline work, where you spend a couple of days stacking shelves or working on the checkout (as Tesco executives do); and 'reverse mentoring', where a Gen-Y employee briefs a senior person on the latest technology trends, while also keeping them informed of a broader range of issues on an informal basis.
2 Package the work into projects
Most people find project work more interesting than routine work, for the simple reasons that a project tends to have a distinct objective, a deadline and a clear person in charge. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how much of the day-to-day work we do could be repackaged in such a way. For example, fundraising is a never-ending activity in a university, but to make it more motivating for fundraisers and donors alike, it gets packaged around a series of campaigns. Once one campaign is over, the fundraising team celebrates and starts all over again. It is worth considering whether you can do something similar in your organisation, by segmenting routine work into a series of projects.
Work yourself out of a job
In theory, each level of management adds value to the one below. In reality, there are overlapping roles, leading to disagreement and frustration. So one useful way of approaching a management job is to imagine the role won't exist in, say, two years' time, and that your job is to train everyone up so they can do your job as well as their own.
As authors, we have personal experience of this as a way of working and it has enormous benefits. For example, it encourages you to hire and promote the best people, it forces you to question why you do certain things at all and it inspires you to delegate many of your tasks.
We realise this approach has its risks. If your enlightened approach to management is not shared by your boss, it is possible the goal of 'working yourself out of a job' may end up with you having no job. But in our experience, this discipline of pushing down the structure as much work as possible has the effect of changing the nature of the work you do as a manager - it forces you to spend more time on the mentoring and supporting activities and it results in better performance all round.
There are no shortcuts to becoming an effective manager. We all intuitively know what 'good management' looks like, but most of us don't follow through on this in our day-to-day actions. So what is needed is not additional advice on what to do, but instead some insight into how we might do it.
Our research suggests the best managers are the ones who adopt the discipline of looking at the world through the eyes of employees. This provides the right mindset to structure work carefully, to communicate more effectively and to push decision-making down to the appropriate level.
At London Business School, Julian Birkinshaw is professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, Vyla Rollins is strategic organisational effectiveness consultant and executive coach Stefano Turconi is strategy research associate