How to Keep Your Best Employees photo

How to Keep Your Best Employees

Many people believe that being a good manager only requires common sense, and that it is therefore easy to be done. If this were true, good managers would be commonplace and as a result, employee engagement and retention would be high. However, only 13% of workers worldwide are engaged at work. As these statistics suggest, either most managers lack common sense, or good management is, in fact, quite challenging in practice.

When managers subscribe to the “common sense” view of management, they see little value in exerting effort when it comes to leading their teams. In turn, they become lazy managers. There are at least two symptoms associated with lazy management: 1) a tendency for managers to blame low performance and turnover on employees, rather than on oneself or on the organization, and 2) a tendency for managers to look for quick fixes to complex retention problems.

Psychologists have long recognized that people often overestimate the role of personality and underestimate the power of the situation in shaping human behaviour. When managers become lazy, they tend to make this fundamental attribution error more frequently and on a larger scale, believing that employees act the way they do because of who they are. By blaming employees for performance problems or retention issues, lazy managers free themselves from doing the hard work of considering how their own management style affects employee satisfaction, performance, and turnover.

Also, because lazy managers believe that good management is simple, when things go wrong, they are drawn to simple solutions that are easy to find. For example, when employee retention becomes a problem, lazy managers may be quick to suggest pay raises or bonuses as the antidote — a costly solution that may fail to address the underlying issue(s). The latest management fads may also be more appealing to lazy managers. Indeed, the sheer volume and availability of solutions to employee engagement and retention problems through blogs, books, podcasts, and other sources is greater than ever, and the reality is that much of it targets lazy managers seeking quick fixes.

First, when employees are disengaged, rather than asking what is wrong with them, managers should instead start by considering the possibility that management is doing something wrong. After opening their minds to this possibility, managers can determine whether this is the case by collecting data. For instance, quick, frequent “pulse surveys” may be useful for keeping tabs on how employees feel about their own jobs and the job that management is doing; likewise, self-development tools, such as the Reflected Best Self exercise, a tool that helps people understand and leverage their individual talents, may provide leaders with feedback that can help them use their strengths more effectively. In short, managers need to take the uncomfortable and intentional step of gathering evidence from others to inform what they can be doing to re-engage their employees. The good news is that by simply signalling to employees that a manager is willing to work hard and make meaningful changes, some employees will feel more supported and inclined to stay.

Second, managers who are willing to make the effort will find that there are ongoing advances in the practice and study of management which offer an ever-expanding set of tools for diagnosing and addressing employee retention challenges. Not every tool fit a given manager’s style and the organization’s circumstances. Therefore, good managers must not only continually learn, but also must have the discipline to verify whether the advice they do receive, even when based on strong evidence and best practices, will apply to their team. For example, before providing employees with customer feedback in order to stoke their prosocial motivation — that is, their interest in helping customers for altruistic, unselfish reasons — a trial run with a subset of employees can provide evidence regarding whether it will improve employee attitudes and performance, and if so, by how much. Fortunately, there are resources available to managers who want to learn more about “people analytics” and how to use it to improve their organizations.

Finally, when retention issues crop up, leaders should consider whether lazy management is contributing to the problem. If managers are just going through the motions when it comes to employee engagement and retention, it could indicate that they lack the necessary time, resources, and motivation to do more. Since effortful management requires energy in the short-term, but does not pay off until down the road, some managers forgo their responsibilities to their people because they are too focused on meeting short-term objectives. To discourage lazy management, then, managers must be given the support, incentives, and direction needed to motivate them to dedicate time and energy toward more actively managing their teams.

Management is not easy, and it takes a lot more than common sense to develop and retain a highly motivated workforce these days. By abandoning the “just common sense” mentality associated with lazy management, managers can learn how their actions influence employees, stop looking for easy fixes, and exert the thought and effort that is uncommon in too many workplaces.

Adapted HBR Jan 2019 Bolino & Klotz