Resolving the Managerial Effectiveness Problem

Resolving the Managerial Effectiveness Problem

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
17 minute read

The subject of middle managers and improving their performance continues to gain wide coverage in the academic and business press, and the reports from the front are not getting any better. Here at Wowledge, we have previously looked into and covered middle managers, toxic leaders, and whether middle managers are even needed. Despite much research and writing about the topic by us and thousands of experts, the issue of how managers fail does not seem to improve. Managerial effectiveness is a major issue that seems to have no end.  

How do we know there is a managerial effectiveness problem?  Take a look at the data, and while their impact on employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention is enormous - while managers drive 70% of engagement results, only 30% of employees are engaged at work.  

Furthermore, only 40% of companies rate their leaders as good or great, and perhaps more damning, less than 50% of employees “trust their manager to do what is right.” Other research suggests that only 25% of workers said their managers were effective at their jobs. Given how negative employee feedback is, combined with the impact that managers have on the employee experience, this issue should be a primary concern to HR and business leaders.  It is time to reconsider the approach to their positions and managerial effectiveness.

The problem(s) with managers

There is abundant information and insights into the issues that employees (anonymously) report about the direct managers. Given findings that 60% of new managers fail within their first 24 months on the job, there are many reasons for such a lack of success.

The wrong people get promoted

Evidence supports the common concern about managerial effectiveness that companies do a poor job of identifying and promoting people into managerial positions. For example, Gallup's research reveals that only 10% of managers have the right blend of skills, capabilities, and traits that lead to successful team leadership. While another 20% have some (but not all) of the required traits and their deficits can be developed, 82% of managers are selected for the wrong reasons. The old issue of high performers moving up without proper consideration of their ability to handle the duties at the next level (e.g., The Peter Principle) continues to plague organizations.

Too many responsibilities

Recent research by Gartner has found that managers' job requirements have grown to the extent that they have 51% more responsibilities than they can manage effectively.  

Add a trend towards corporate flattening (removing management layers), and we find managers with more direct reports. In fact, Gartner found that the average manager has almost three times (2.8X) more direct reports than six years ago. The weight on middle managers is expanding, not shrinking, testing their skills and ability to execute their roles efficiently.

Bureaucratic processes 

Managerial effectiveness is compromised by responsibilities that remove them from their primary role of guiding subordinates and overseeing workflows and associated goals. McKinsey found that 49% of an average manager's time is spent on administrative and non-management-related tasks. The time they spend managing and fostering talent suffers, with less than 25% spent on people-related activities.   

Furthermore, 44% of managers report that they cannot accomplish all of their talent-related duties owing to an “overwhelming bureaucracy” (e.g., excessive meetings, emails, and approval processes) regularly included in their day-to-day responsibilities.

Behaving in counterproductive ways

Given managers' impact on employee engagement, it should be no surprise that their behaviors drive the lower scores. Gallup found that certain behaviors contributed to their subordinates' poor ratings: not providing clear performance expectations, not demonstrating care for the individual and their development, and asking for their opinions and input on work issues.   

The continuing observation of “toxic leaders” only adds to the conundrum, with studies reporting that as many as 13.6% of leaders and managers exhibit “destructive” behaviors and a Harris Poll (October 2023) finding that 31% of employees complained about their managers setting unreasonable expectations, micromanaging their work, and stealing credit for their ideas and contributions.

Ill-equipped to manage employees as people

Managerial effectiveness issues related to insufficient time spent on their people may arise from insecurity in their ability to deal with their employees’ emotional lives. For example, only 15% of managers feel prepared to prevent employee burnout, a rapidly rising concern for organizations.

The Harris Poll Found that a remarkable majority (69%) of managers reported discomfort communicating with employees, with 51% saying they avoid those interactions. In addition, 63% fail to recognize employee accomplishments, 57% don’t provide clear direction, and 39% do not share constructive feedback with struggling employees. 52% of those managers stated they do not have the time to meet with their direct reports.

Lack of development

Is it an issue of available time and bandwidth on the part of managers or the lack of resourcing from their companies? Either way, 71% of managers report they do not receive sufficient support to improve their leadership of others. The availability of training is only one aspect of this – “support” can imply the lack of individualized development from coaches or their leaders, access to peer learning networks, or participation in external conferences.  But on the training front,  they complain that the learning and growth opportunities they receive are neither tailored to their personal skill development needs nor aligned with the needs of the business.

They are unhappy

Given the current environment with talent shortages, flattening organizational structures, and the issues outlined above, it is not surprising that many managers and leaders are unhappy with their current roles. Recent studies have found that 57% of managers look back and wish someone had warned them about the challenges and difficulties they would face. 46% said they would likely quit their job in the coming year due to high work-related stress.  

Even top leaders are not immune to the stressors of their workdays. 20% of C-Suite executives reported that they “often” or “always” feel cynical, irritable, and burned out at work.

Understanding what drives managerial effectiveness

The rationale for improving managerial effectiveness starts with doing a better job of selecting managers for promotion (or external hire) and should be based on a commitment to improving the employee experience and generating improved business results. Gallup’s research points to great leadership driving higher employee engagement and significantly higher customer ratings, profitability, quality, productivity, and turnover.  In fact, those with great leaders and managers achieve, on average, 147% higher earnings per share than their competition.

The best research and practice-based firms provide objectively-based insights into what differentiates great leaders and managers.  For example:

Great Place to Work reports that the most effective leaders focus on 1) gathering input from team members and engaging them in decisions, 2) recognizing employee accomplishments, and 3) inspiring employees through role modeling of competency, honesty, and reliability.  

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) finds that great managers are 1) self-aware, 2) effective communicators, 3) understand stakeholders' needs and influence their thinking and actions, 4) exhibit learning agility, with a continuous drive to develop and be open to new learnings. 

Gallup finds that great managers: 1) motivate and engage employees with a compelling mission and vision, 2) drive outcomes and overcome barriers, 3)  manage a culture of accountability, 4) build open and trusting relationships, and 5) make decisions based on productivity vs. politics.  

McKinsey found what employees appreciate the most are 1) being valued, 2) a sense of belonging to the team, 3) enjoying work-life balance, and 4) having a manageable workload.  

The takeaway is that effective managers focus the team on its goals and direction, how the work gets done, leverage the expertise of team members, build meaningful relationships, and exhibit fairness and appreciation.

Two managers delivering on their talent management duties 

How well are managers delivering on their talent management duties and outcomes? 

Managing performance

Employees consistently express disdain for the performance management process conducted by and with their managers. 66% of employees are dissatisfied with their performance evaluations, and 65% state that the appraisals were irrelevant to their work and contributions. 

Furthermore, despite widely reported improvements to the process, 47% of employees still receive feedback only a few times per year or less.  

Part of the issue relates to the actual employee experience, where a lack of ongoing communication and coaching has led to results such as 62% of employees feeling “blindsided” by the feedback they received and 40% of employees actively disengaged because they received little to no performance feedback. Only 20% of workers say that they are motivated by the way their manager guides their performance. Too many managers are passing up the opportunity to provide regular coaching and feedback to their assigned troops.

Providing coaching 

The role as a coach is key to managerial effectiveness, as they guide their team members in a give-and-take (versus issuing orders and tasks) exchange that generates collaborative decisions. Great managers ask employees for their perspective on what is working and what is not, get their thoughts on possible solutions while giving constructive feedback, etc. 90% of managers and employees agree that managers and leaders need to bring coaching skills into their interactions with employees, and 72% see the strong relationship between coaching and increased employee engagement.   

However, only 46% of all managers have confidence in their ability to coach their team members. Employee sentiment surveys show that workers pick up on that, with 45% of those who are “rarely or never satisfied” in their conversations with their managers reporting being less productive and 52% less engaged.

Guiding employee development

Employees rely upon their manager as a primary guide for identifying their skill development needs and how to enhance those. In fact, the Millennial and GenZ workers expect their direct supervisors to provide regular and ongoing feedback and development conversations. However, managers appear to be ill-equipped (and ill-at-ease) to satisfy those expectations. 

45% of managers admit to lacking confidence in knowing how to develop the skills of their team members. Making things worse, they avoid those conversations altogether, with only 9% of managers' work time being spent in development discussions. Further data supports this, with only 19% of managers discussing skill development in regular check-in meetings with subordinates, 16% asking about the worker’s skill and career aspirations, and only 9% talking about opportunities for advancement.   

The employees seem to know this. 46% of employees say that their managers are incapable of delivering useful and appropriate skill development and career guidance. Even worse, 67% blame their managers for providing bad professional advice that negatively affected their careers, with another 52% saying that it impacted their current job performance.

Communicating meaning and purpose  

Managers help employees understand how their day-to-day work and roles contribute to the organization's and its stakeholders' larger purpose and objectives. Employees look to their direct supervisors for meaning and purpose. Understanding how one’s role impacts business objectives and customer outcomes drives higher employee engagement, satisfaction, productivity, and retention.  

However, only 7% of employees understand their purpose at work because their managers failed to explain that to them. Certain toxic managerial behaviors, such as ignoring employee suggestions, bullying, and favoritism, promoting bureaucratic work, and withholding recognition, create the opposite - a sense of worthlessness and meaninglessness.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing 

Managers have a bigger impact on an employee’s mental health than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%) and the same amount (69%) as one’s spouse.  The focus on employee well-being has become a hot topic and top concern over the recent past and drives turnover and lost productivity when not addressed. 35% of employees state that their manager does not appreciate their behavior and actions' negative effect on the team.  

While employee workload is a problem, 38% say they’ve “rarely” or “never” talked with their manager about it, 16% state that “my manager would not care,” and 13% report that their “manager is too busy.”

Managing in a remote environment 

With estimates as high as 76% of workers in the U.S. able to work remotely and the majority of organizations opting to offer a hybrid model, remote management skills are critical. As managers drive much of these arrangements' success or failure, their ability to do so effectively is being tested. Sadly, Gallup reports that 73% of hybrid managers are unprepared to lead hybrid teams. This is especially significant in that a manager’s effectiveness is four times (4X) more important than the employee's work location in determining their level of engagement and well-being.    

Remote workers interact significantly less with their managers than those working onsite. Meanwhile, their managers are suffering from a lack of support, with 75% of companies reporting that they have not yet provided training to their managers and leaders or established standards for team management across multiple work locations.

Onboarding new hires

New hire onboarding, especially those who will be working remotely either full-time or on a hybrid schedule is a critical driver of new hire satisfaction, retention, speed to competency, and ultimately, performance and productivity. When managers assume an active role in the onboarding process, new hires are 3.4 times more likely to see the process as successful.  

Unfortunately, hiring managers neglect to share how and where the employee fits into the system and the company’s purpose. With only 25% of employees feeling connected to a company’s mission, the opportunity to make them aware of that in their first week(s) is critical.  

Furthermore, managers often forget to set goals for both role contributions and personal development purposes. Research shows that 60% of companies do not set goals for new hires, slowing the new hires’ time to competence or full productivity.

Overcoming the challenges, creating a supportive ecosystem for great managers

The priority status for change and improvements in managerial effectiveness could not be higher. Given the well-documented talent shortages happening across the globe, the issue of attracting, developing, and retaining employees is enormous for today’s employers. Managers' oversized influence on those outcomes demands action to create pathways for improving an organization’s management team, which requires a series of interlocking steps that can create a responsive and supportive ecosystem.

1. Simplify the Manager Role

Start with a focused strategy and effort to improve the middle manager role by focusing on the manager experience (MX). Proactively engage managers in reviewing, designing, and redesigning the (business and HR) systems, processes, and practices they must complete and participate in. Design thinking offers an end-user-centric approach and drives significantly enhanced design decisions.  

Given how the average manager spends 51% of their time on administrative and individual contributor activities, downsizing the burden for these tasks can extend the time available for talent management-related work. In particular, work to reduce steps and time spent on processes related to budgeting, performance management, purchasing, financial reporting, operational reviews, required meetings and reports, approvals, etc. 

Also, consider how much time managers spend on technical work such as project reviews, project management, technical briefings, presentations, etc. While the depth and breadth of many managers’ experience make their technical inputs highly valuable, controlling their non-people management responsibilities can better align their work with the organization's needs.

2. Pick the right people for management roles

Understanding that only 10-20% of people are well-suited for management roles, install a formal and disciplined process for assessing candidates. Define the differentiating skills, traits, and capabilities that great managers bring to the role. Identify the most important behaviors for great managers at your organization to create selection criteria that leverage objective standards and evaluation methods. 

Create a process that leverages multiple checkpoints and perspectives over a period of time to collect formal assessments (e.g., validated tests for potential, emotional intelligence, etc.), expert observations, and on-the-job performance to identify, calibrate, and carefully manage the ascension of true “high potentials” (HIPOs) before deciding who can be a candidate for a given managerial role. Engage groups of managers to regularly conduct talent reviews or calibration sessions that evaluate future and current leaders to generate improved assessments.

3. Give them the support they need

Managerial effectiveness requires support – but by many accounts, management development programs are failing their participants. While 83% of companies say developing their managers and future leaders is important, only 5% have effective leadership development programs.

Managers need continuous and ongoing development that mixes structured training and learning opportunities with generous coaching, mentoring, and other development experiences tied to their individualized needs. Formally assess their strengths and weaknesses against a well-constructed set of competency and skill models. Develop them continuously through job rotations, peer group discussion groups, etc.

4. Measure their performance and insist on excellence 

The best companies measure and track managerial effectiveness and performance. They utilize pulse and spot surveys to gauge the consistency with which managers exhibit the competencies and meet core behavior expectations. Generating ongoing and anonymous feedback from subordinates allows the organization to track and reward those meeting or exceeding requirements and weed out those ill-suited for the role. 

Be prepared to require remedial training, coaching, or development to those falling short of expectations, and move sub-par performers who do not improve into individual contributor roles better suited to their strengths.

Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure and track management of staffing levels, employee tenure and retention rates, talent production (e.g., promotions out and transfers to new or cross-functional roles), and employee ratings of them as a talent developer, career manager, coach, etc.

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