In the workplace, a manager is like... a guide holding together a team of hikers on a long, winding trail.
They need to keep the group together, adjust the pace so everyone can make it to the end of the trail successfully, determine when to stop for breaks and when to push on, and offer guidance along the way when the group gets to a tough spot. 🥾
Some managers are helpful, cheerful guides with a deep knowledge of both the terrain ahead and how to motivate the whole group. They bring the good snacks, too. 😉
But, there are too many managers who are deeply critical, or take off on their own and leave the team behind, or guide everyone down the wrong route until everyone gives up and looks to someone else as a leader.
How can some managers be great guides and leaders, while others get themselves and their teams lost in the woods?
And how can existing or aspiring managers improve their skills so their teams thrive on the trail? We’ll cover it all right here—let’s get started.
Why good managers matter
Having great employees is definitely good for your business, but having great managers is perhaps even more vital. While employees certainly make a difference in how your teams and company run, managers have an intense, daily impact on the work and engagement of their entire team.
That’s why managers are one of the most important factors in how satisfying and engaging (or dissatisfying and enraging!) employees find their jobs.
You’ve probably felt this impact in your own career—a terrific manager can inspire you to do your best work and explore exciting opportunities, while a bad one can make the work day an uphill battle.
In fact, managers are so critical to an employee’s experience on the job that half of workers who quit their positions say they left because of their managers, according to Gallup’s State of the Workplace survey. Managers alone account for 70% of the variance in team-level engagement.
That means just one bad manager can have a huge ripple effect of demotivating and demoralizing a whole team of otherwise talented and engaged employees.
Great managers have an impact beyond just their immediate team. So why aren’t more companies better at developing, promoting, and retaining these great managers?
The challenges of managing well
Well, one thing standing in the way of creating and nurturing more terrific managers is that it’s pretty hard to manage people well! (Every manager reading this is nodding in agreement right now.)
It requires a complex mix of strategizing, prioritizing, technical skills, interpersonal skills, and support from the whole organization to allow managers to really manage effectively.
And most managers are not set up for success by their companies to begin with. In fact, the average middle manager has 50% more direct reports than a decade ago and spends about 15% less time with each of them.
That workload alone makes it much harder for even talented and committed managers to do their best every day.
Adding to this mix is the simple fact that many people are promoted into management roles because they’re good at their jobs, not because they show potential as people managers.
Having the technical skills to excel at their jobs doesn't mean an employee has the necessary interpersonal skills or management abilities to be a good manager. Yet, a promotion to management is often seen as the natural next step in someone's career path.
Plus, these newly minted managers are often just tossed into their new roles without any significant management training and left to sink or swim on their own.
Most bad managers aren’t trying to be bad bosses—they just don’t know what success looks like, or how they can get better at being a manager. That's what we're going to try and cover. 💪
What makes a good manager?
So what characteristics and actions separate mediocre managers from their exceptional peers? There are many things—large and small—that make a difference. But here are five of the most powerful characteristics that make a good manager.
1. Know your people
Knowing what makes each employee unique—their strengths, their weak spots, their passions, and their work style—is vital to being a good manager. But it’s more than just knowing your people at a deep level.
You also need to understand how to play to everyone’s strengths and balance out weaknesses. Your whole team will be happier and more productive this way, because they get to use their skills every day to do interesting work. Your company will thrive as well, because you’ll have highly engaged employees doing work they enjoy and excel at.
2. Commit to communicating
Another trait of great managers is that they’re clear communicators. Management communications isn’t just about giving presentations well—it’s about being able to lay out clear expectations for your team that aligns to the overall mission of the company.
Employees need well-defined expectations and goals to perform with excellence. Clarity about their job role and specific duties provides them with direction and areas of focus for their day-to-day work. Unfortunately, only six in 10 employees know what is expected of them at work.
–Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2020
If all you communicate to your employees is their daily or weekly task list, you’re missing out on a big opportunity to engage your team. Employee engagement goes up when people feel connected to a larger vision and mission—and managers are in the best position to make that connection for their teams.
3. Make time to meet
Great managers also have regular check-ins with each of their team members. And these meetings are more than just running through the week’s to-do list—it’s a chance for employees to connect and collaborate with you without anything else going on. Radical Candor has a great list of tips for how to run an effective 1:1 meeting with direct reports, but they all basically boil down to this: listen more than you speak, let the employee guide the agenda, and have a deep level of respect for this time together.
You should focus more on getting feedback from your report about how they’re feeling and having ongoing career conversations, rather than just running through status updates in these meetings.
If you need some help with prompts or agendas, Hypercontext has some of best one-on-one templates around.
4. Create a healthy workplace culture
And finally, excellent managers consciously create a great work environment. They understand how they impact their team culture themselves—are they micromanaging or stressing employees out in some way? Are they inadvertently creating a culture of overwork or under-recognition?
Good managers also handle toxic employees before they bring down the whole team with them. Dealing with difficult employees is nobody’s idea of a good time, but it must happen swiftly or issues will only get worse.
5. Focus on performance development
According to our 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report, 89% of Highly Engaged employees are satisfied with their professional development opportunities, compared to only 36% of Actively Disengaged employees.
Managers have the great responsibility of helping their team members grow and achieve their goals. This means that you can't just save feedback and career conversations for the annual review.
[Only] a mere 30% of employees strongly agree that their manager involves them in setting their goals at work, those who do strongly agree with this statement are 3.6 times more likely than other employees to be engaged.
–Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2020
Managers should be having frequent, ongoing conversations with their employees about their professional development. Setting aside time to understand how to leverage your employees' strengths, collaborate on goal-setting, and identify problem areas is hugely impactful to employee engagement.
How can you become a great manager?
So you’re a manager and you want to get better at your job—now what? First, congratulate yourself for committing to improving! Even good managers can always learn skills that will help them manage and motivate their teams better. Here are our top four suggestions for actions you can take:
Improve your communications skills. This will help you set clear expectations for employees, manage up the chain of command to advocate for your team, and lay out a vision that motivates your employees and connects them to the company as a whole.
Don’t put off or shy away from honest conversations. Employees need—and want—regular feedback on what they’re doing well and where they could work a little harder. And they also appreciate ongoing conversations about the next steps in their career path and the way they can get there from their managers as well.
Only 23% of employees strongly agree their manager provides meaningful feedback to them, and 26% of employees strongly agree the feedback they receive helps them do better work. Those who strongly agree with these feedback elements are more likely to be engaged than other employees.
–Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2020
Stay flexible. Micromanaging your team is one of the biggest mistakes managers make, though it’s often a well-intentioned attempt to make sure tasks go smoothly and important policies are followed. But each employee is their own person, and different situations require different responses, so don’t stick strictly to the rulebook when a little flexibility is warranted.
Don’t be afraid to adjust. Your employees want to be creative and innovative, and they’ll feel more engaged and satisfied if they have the chance to do so. Letting them look at old processes or programs with fresh eyes can give them autonomy and the chance to make a difference in how your organization runs–and that’s a win for everyone.
Management skills are something you learn—not something you’re born with. That’s great news, because it means it’s possible for everyone to become a better manager who motivates and engages their employees every day. And discovering your own strengths as a manager will help you become the great boss you were always meant to be.
For more tips on employee engagement, check out this resource: