Candidate shaking hands with his manager

The impact of managers on employee engagement

A manager’s job is to keep their team engaged and laser-focused on the tasks at hand. Sometimes, however, managers can be the primary reason for disengagement in the first place.

Why are managers so important?

People leave their managers, not their job. And the evidence certainly supports this theory.

According to data published in The Economist, 35% of American people employed would forego a pay rise to get their boss fired.

Managers have a massive impact on our engagement, happiness and health. Swedish researchers at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, for example, found that people with incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive or uncommunicative managers are 60% more likely to have a heart attack.

Productivity is also affected by poor management. The former director of the Centre of Economic Performance at the London Business School, John Van Reenen, has said that half the productivity gap between the UK and the US is down to mediocre people managers.

Too many managers in the UK are “accidental” — upon promotion, they inherit a team without being adequately trained in how to motivate and inspire them. According to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), four out of five people managers in the UK fit this profile.

The relationship between managers and their team is changing, however. People are no longer just a human resource, and managers are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of understanding and acknowledging their team’s personal lives.

Before rolling out the latest engagement strategy, businesses first need to ensure that their managers are good people managers.

What makes a good manager?

In 2008, Google launched Project Oxygen, a massive data-driven research project to uncover the characteristics of good managers. The project initially identified eight traits, which was later updated to ten in 2018. According to Project Oxygen, a good manager:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator who listens and shares information
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills that help them advise the team
  9. Collaborates
  10. Is a strong decision-maker

After a cursory glance at this list, one thing becomes apparent: nine of the ten traits are soft skills. A good manager has to be deeply empathetic and genuinely interested in their team’s personal lives and long-term careers. They need to be supportive, open-minded communicators as well as being deeply intuitive, but they must not micromanage.

To underscore the importance of communication, Google went one step further and identified three reasons why managers inevitably fail: a tough transition, an inconsistent approach to performance management, and not spending enough time managing or communicating.

Today, the line between a person’s professional and private life is blurred. It’s no longer enough for managers to merely fulfil basic administrative duties. To understand and connect with their team, managers need to understand them as individual people. Engagement boils down to treating people with respect.

How managers can boost employee engagement

Here are three simple strategies that managers can follow to help encourage greater engagement among their team.

1) Give regular recognition

Receiving praise makes us happy. Recognition increases the amount of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in our brains, triggering feelings of joy and happiness.

Showing appreciation to people is free and easy. The problem? The initial positive feeling that people experience after receiving praise wears off fairly quickly. For direct supervisors, it’s important to regularly give sincere, authentic praise.

In reality, however, this simply isn’t the case. Gallup’s research suggests managers need to praise someone at least once a week. However, Deloitte research found that 70% of people feel their work is recognised either annually or not at all. Given that 78% of people feel that being recognised for their efforts motivates them in their job, the onus is on managers to harness this inner drive among their people.

For the award-winning HR leader, Debra Corey, recognition should be ongoing, strategic and intimately linked to an organisation’s values. Corey also argues that recognition does not necessarily have to focus on a single individual:

“Recognition doesn’t just have to be about the individual. It can, and should, be about the team as well.”

When recognition is positioned as a core tenet of an engagement strategy, it enables people to be more productive, improves the working environment, reduces attrition and decreases absenteeism.

2) Provide honest, constructive feedback

While similar to praise, managerial feedback can often tend to focus on the negative aspects of a person’s performance. However, giving feedback is vital because it is a constructive and important way to help someone get better at what they do.

A manager’s job is to galvanise their team to be the best they can be. Managers giving little or no feedback results in four out of ten people becoming actively disengaged.

Regular, developmental feedback not only builds trust, but it also helps people deliver on their promises.

3) Build and maintain positive relationships

People crave meaningful relationships with their colleagues. A 2013 doctoral thesis by researcher Helen Stockhult found that social relationships between colleagues are at the root of someone’s willingness to take on responsibilities beyond their formal job description.

Further research has uncovered some interesting details on this particular subject. According to a Gallup Poll, having a best friend at work makes someone 43% more likely to report that they have received recent recognition.

Elsewhere, a study by the University of Wharton found that helping someone for 10 to 30 minutes a day will make people feel more confident and less time-constrained. In other words, helping a colleague makes people happier.

Managers want people around them to feel connected to what the business does. In order to achieve this, the first step is to encourage cooperation and build positive relationships between colleagues.

The takeaway

In bolstering engagement across a business, the role of managers is vital. As one of the key indicators of people wellbeing, managers need to be given the training and support to properly manage their teams. And, perhaps most importantly, businesses need to ensure they treat all their people with respect.
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