Bringing out the best in employees

Employees who find their work frustrating, boring and worthless have found their hero in Scott Adams’ Dilbert ...

Employees who find their work frustrating, boring and worthless have found their hero in Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the nine-to-five man who lets us know just how bad managers can be at their jobs. Julian Birkinshaw, Vyla Rollins and Stefano Turconi believe that bad bosses can change to become true leaders

Bringing out the best in employeesMost books written on management and leadership are written from the perspective of the manager. These books are typically based on interviews with managers, in which they talk about the supervisory things they do and the managerial approach they use. Typically, the authors of such books offer advice aimed at helping today’s and tomorrow’s managers do their jobs better.

While there is value in such books, they pay far too little attention to the fears, doubts, aspirations or needs of the employee. And, of course, 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 topdown and control-oriented activity.

In our recent research (which involved interviews with more than 50 employees across a dozen companies as well as questionnaire data from more than 200 employees), we took an employee-centred approach to management — starting with the view that management should be about ‘seeing the world through the eyes of the employee’. According to this perspective, the job of the manager is essentially to enable employees to do their best work, to help them reach their own personal goals while also delivering on the organisation’s goals.

This employee-centred approach starts with a much deeper understanding of the world view of employees, and it seeks to recast the role of the manager as one of tapping into an employee’s strengths, enabling her aspirations and negating her fears.

Thus, we sought employees’ views on the aspects of their work that they found motivating and engaging, as well as the various 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 employees want

Although there was plenty of variation in the specific answers to the questions about what makes work motivating and fulfilling, it quickly became clear that there were five characteristics that employees seemed to recognise as important and valuable.

  • Having responsibility for doing something worthwhile
  • Being given a high level of freedom for how results are achieved
  • Having an opportunity to extend oneself and to develop expertise
  • Being given an opportunity to work with good colleagues
  • Achieving recognition for doing a good job

What is surprising is that so many people, in very different working environments, find themselves doing work that does not have these attributes. Moreover, it’s worth underlining what’s missing from this list. Money is nowhere to be seen (it was mentioned only by a couple of people, and these were salespeople with a large variable component to their pay). Likewise, there was no discussion of the physical working environment.

The five characteristics were consistently mentioned across a wide variety of contexts — from white-collar office workers to factory machinists, front-line hotel employees and IT help desk workers. There may be some employees who want precise instructions and narrowly defined tasks, but we didn’t meet any of them in this research. Most working environments, we believe, would benefit by utilising these broad principles in their management practices.

What frustrates workers

The other way to determine how best to motivate and engage employees is to start from the negative; that is, to manage in ways that eliminate the things that worry workers or keep them awake at night. Effective management, we believe, is potentially as much about getting rid of these negatives as it is about enhancing the positives.

The list of fears, concerns and frustrations mentioned by employees was very long. Some people focused on basic fears, such as losing their job or the company getting into financial trouble. Others focused on what we might call higher-order concerns, such as not living up to their own expectations or not getting the level of mentoring they would like. The major sources of fear or concern, in hierarchical order, boiled down to seven issues.

  • Lack of opportunities for personal development
  • Fear of failing to deliver on (high) expectations
  • Concern with the stress of the work
  • Frustration with ineffective processes
  • Concern about not fitting in
  • Concern with uncertainty and change
  • Fear of redundancy

What can you do to make use of this hierarchy of fears? The first and most obvious point is that it is always good to know what your employees are worrying about, what their most immediate and easily articulated concerns are. Second, and perhaps more insightfully, the things that are worrying your employees may also be indicative of their overall situation, including the things that they are content with. 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 those employees who 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, it is worth keeping in mind that the hierarchy of fears applies only to the workplace, and work is only one part of an individual’s life. For example, many people choose to start their own business to achieve esteem and self-actualisation, but, of course, without any job security. In such cases, they derive their security from other sources, typically a supportive family. So the workplace cannot satisfy all an employee’s needs, but we believe it has the potential to satisfy many of them.

Good boss? Bad boss?

We asked respondents about their current bosses and specifically what made them effective or ineffective. We also asked them about their best and worst bosses ever. The answers, rather like the answers about what makes for a fulfilling workplace, were equally interesting.

A good boss gives employees challenging work to do, creates space for them to do it, provides support when needed, gives recognition and praise and is not afraid to make tough decisions. A bad boss tends to provide confusing or unclear objectives, micromanages and meddles, is selfish and focused on his own agenda, provides little and mostly negative feedback and dithers.

Our research led us to two difficult questions: first, 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? Further, given that this gap exists and has existed for a long time, what can we do about it?

Managerial hurdles

We asked many of our interviewees about the inability of smart, well-intentioned managers to do what they know (intellectually) to be right. That is, we asked why potentially good managers become bad ones. We heard a wide variety of answers, all of which appear to have some validity. These are grouped into three basic categories.

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. Providing challenging tasks is good, but impossible tasks are not. Balance is the key in both areas. But what makes this really difficult is that each employee has a unique set of skills and motivations; 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, while the next is cursing you for leaving him stranded without adequate supervisory guidance.

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, to provide regular feedback and to make sure she had the resources she needed to succeed. But many managers have five or six people reporting to them (and, today, some managers have many more!), each with different needs. Managers have their own work to do, they have bosses of their own to answer to and they frequently travel a lot. They also have 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. The third reason why many managers fail to walk the talk is that being a good manager requires them to act in non-intuitive or ‘unnatural’ ways. There is a lot of academic research looking at the natural predispositions we have as humans. This research shows, for example, that we are fairly selfish, control-oriented and risk-averse. There is nothing wrong with these traits — they are inherited things that our forebears passed on to us, and you can see how they might have been useful traits for surviving in earlier times.

But, of course, these are not the traits of a good manager — far from it.

Becoming a better manager

The proper response to our research and analysis is not discouragement. Is management an easy job? Not at all. Yet, there are some things that any manager can do to become better. The path to managerial improvement starts with three steps.

1. Purpose and performance

See the world through the employee’s eyes — on a regular basis

The whole purpose of this research was to take an employee-centred perspective, so it should be no surprise that we see one of the hallmarks of an effective manager as his or her ability to put themselves in their employees’ shoes. But how to do that? Many people have seen the TV programme, Undercover Boss, in which the CEO of a company takes on a range of front-line jobs without his team members realising who their new colleague is. During this research, we interviewed Stephen Martin, CEO of the construction company, Clugston, who took part in the first series of this programme. He was genuinely moved by the experience — both because of the passion and dedication exhibited by many of the Clugston employees and because he came to realise how poorly he had understood some of their concerns. The undercover experience led him to make some important changes in how he ran the company and how he communicated with employees across the group.

Trouble is, most of us will never get a real undercover experience. So we have to find alternative ways of getting into the heads of our employees, such as:

  • Institutionalised skip-level meetings
  • These are an opportunity to talk directly with the two layers below you in the hierarchy. Informal brown-bag lunches with employees serve a similar function.
  • Web-enabled chat and discussion forums
  • CapGemini uses a microblogging tool called ‘Yammer’, which encourages top-of-mind conversations on specific topics, without regard for rank.
  • Front-line work
  • Tesco’s top executives spend a few days every year stacking shelves and working on the checkout.
  • Smokers’ corner
  • If you go outside for a cigarette (not that we recommend anyone smoke), you find yourself striking up conversation with a random slice of people at all levels in the company, typically in a much less hierarchical manner than if you bumped into them in a formal setting
  • Reverse mentoring
  • One of the people we interviewed for this research is a 48-year old test director at Microsoft. In a switch of the classic roles of elder-coaching-younger, a 28-year-old employee is mentoring him, primarily to make sure the boss stays up to date with the latest technology trends. Naturally, they end up discussing a wide range of issues on a much more informal basis than would normally be possible.

2. Package work

Package work — even routine work — into projects

When presenting seminars for executives, we often ask them this question: Think back to the last time you were fully engaged and motivated at work. What were the characteristics of that work? They typically come up with the sort of list we described earlier (that is, challenging work, lots of autonomy, a chance to work with good people). But, more importantly, they almost always find themselves recalling a specific and discrete project. This isn’t surprising, but it is interesting. Because it suggests that one way of making routine work more fulfilling and motivating for employees is to structure their work into a series of projects. The essence of a project is simply (a) a clear objective, (b) a deadline by which the objective needs to be reached and (c) a clear sense of who is doing the work and who is responsible.

3. Overlapping roles

Work yourself out of a job

Each level of management adds value to the one below. Well, that is the intention and the presumed logic of hierarchy in organisations. In reality, there are often overlapping roles between layers in a hierarchy, leading to disagreement and frustration. One useful way of approaching a management job is to imagine that the role won’t exist in, say, two years’ time and that your job is to train everyone so that they can do your job as well as their own. Doing that 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 to the people working for you.

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 knowledge in our day-to-day actions. What’s needed is not additional advice on what to do but, instead, some insight into how we might do it. Our research suggests that the best managers are those who adopt the discipline of looking at the world through the eyes of their employees. This provides the right mindset to structure work carefully, to communicate more effectively and to push decision-making down to the appropriate level.

© London Business School [2012]. The definitive, peer reviewed and edited version of this article is published in Business Strategy Review [volume 23, issue 1, pages 39 -43],

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