What's a Manager to Do?
By Jim Trinka
Jim Trinka’s study of manager-employee surveys in government and industry reveals what surely must be best-kept secrets. For example, by focusing on “developing others,” and “communication” competencies, managers can increase their overall leadership effectiveness by 50-60 percent. To drive his points home, he shows that 10 managerial activities—out of a possible 250—have the most potential for delivering high employee performance. Do yourself and other managers a favor: Read this paper and pass it on.
Applying Science to Build Leadership: Which
Managerial Activities Have the Most Impact on Improving Employee
A review of several surveys on these important topics reveals unusual similarities in findings and recommendations and suggests that an application of hard science might offer us some insight on how best to exercise and build the soft skill of leadership. Specifically, the evidence supports the establishment of a performance-management based organizational culture, although not from a command and control perspective, but one that involves a coaching environment and conscious attempts at continuous dialogue within work teams to achieve a balance between driving for results and interpersonal skills. Furthermore, managers who undertake specific activities related to this approach have a much better chance of achieving “breakthrough” employee performance improvements, leading to “breakthrough” results for the organization.
Focus on Success: What Works?
Immediate Feedback Works Interestingly, most of the performance improvement activities that managers can utilize have minimal impact on individual employee performance. The results clearly show that managers have a much better chance of vastly improving employee performance by targeting their efforts on a much smaller list of activities. In fact, managers who set clear performance standards, become more knowledgeable about employee performance, and provide fair and accurate informal feedback on performance strengths can significantly improve individual performance. And when discussing weaknesses, managers who clearly focus on specific suggestions for improvement or development can improve employee performance; those who emphasize weaknesses can dramatically decrease performance. In short, managers who provide feedback that is voluntary, detailed, immediate, and positive can positively influence employee performance.1
This information shouldn’t surprise most managers as we’ve heard it all before and it seems intuitive. However, survey responses show some disparities in perceptions between employees and managers. The majority of employees believe that formal performance reviews do nothing to actually help their on-the-job performance, yet they crave voluntary and detailed informal performance feedback, especially on strengths. Interestingly, the majority of managers view formal performance reviews as an administrative requirement rather than as an influential lever to positively influence employee performance. In fact, many managers report that they specifically cite performance weaknesses to lower an employee’s rating below the highest mark rather than emphasizing strengths to raise performance ratings above minimally successful. On informal feedback, employees report that most managers provide general praise, rather than specific and detailed recognition.
Manager-Led Employee Development
Target Fewer Activities Similar to the results of the performance management survey, managers have a much better chance of vastly improving employee performance by targeting their efforts on a much smaller list of employee development activities. The top three managerial activities highlight the importance of managers ensuring that day-to-day work experiences provide learning and encourage development and that they clearly explain performance standards. Managers lament that time constraints or competing priorities limit the time they spend on employee development, but the good news is that they can undertake the activities listed above every day as a part of their normal job responsibilities to further “blur the line” between learning and work.
Effectiveness at Employee Development Increases Employee
Improving Certain Leadership Competences Can Increase Leadership Effectiveness Similar to the results of both the performance management and employee development surveys, managers have a much better chance of vastly improving their leadership effectiveness by targeting their development efforts on a much smaller list of leadership competencies. For example, by focusing on improving the behaviors associated with the “Developing Others” and “Communication” competencies, managers can increase overall leadership effectiveness scores by 50-60 percent. The associated behaviors of these two competencies relating to employee development and performance management are: 1) creates an environment and strategy to support continuous on-the-job learning, and 2) strategically uses communication to produce enthusiasm and foster an atmosphere of open exchange and support.
Build Profound Strengths My analysis also uncovered interesting insights into the most effective methods of improving leadership competencies. Traditional leadership development efforts focus on correcting weaknesses and, at best, achieve only small incremental improvements and do not offer an effective strategy for making “good” leaders “great,” since evaluation respondents identify the best leaders not by a lack of weaknesses, but by the possession of a few profound strengths. However, by identifying and focusing on competencies in which the manager is performing strongly, though not exceptionally, small amounts of improvement tend to dramatically increase a manager’s overall leadership effectiveness.
In addition, focusing on “competency companions” (closely related competencies that support those targeted for development) can improve a manager’s overall effectiveness even more. In fact, building a few of a manager’s existing strengths to even higher levels through developing “competency companions” can achieve behavioral improvements as much as 8 times more effective than traditional methods because, according to respondents, profound strengths in a few areas overshadow perceived weaknesses. Since this study also correlated increases in overall leadership effectiveness to employee engagement results, I discovered that correcting weaknesses only raised employee engagement scores a paltry 2-3 percent, while building a few profound strengths offered the potential of increasing employee engagement by nearly 80 percent.
Similar to the results of the previously cited surveys, managers have a much better chance of vastly improving the workplace environment for their employees by targeting efforts on a much smaller list of performance drivers. By listing the 5 key differentiating questions, we clearly see patterns of what survey respondents are telling their managers to focus on.
Q4: In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
Q7: At work, my opinions seem to count.
Q6: There is someone at work who encourages my development.
Q12: This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.
Q11: In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
Two of the questions relate to conversations about performance, two others speak directly to the value of employee development activities, and the last implies an atmosphere of open exchange and support.
Managers and Employees Have Different Perceptions on
Key criteria for successor identification and development include integrity/honesty and group leadership (crucial to performance management), developing others, and communication and a glance at the table suggests a needed balance between interpersonal skills and driving for results. Improving managers’ performance in these activities/competencies will undoubtedly steer the organization’s culture to support the CEO’s workforce and leadership quality initiatives and subsequently drive “breakthrough” improvements in organizational results.
Simplifying the Life of a Busy Manager
A specific criterion of success for “great” organizations is the emphasis on specific activities that generate “breakthrough” performance improvement and not just a general emphasis on the common themes. After reviewing the impact of over 250 possible managerial activities, I recommend a short list of only ten that has the most potential for delivering high performance improvement levels, since these differentiate “great” organizations and leaders from the rest. By studying success and recognizing and appreciating what works for “great” leaders and organizations, we can determine the actions that have the most impact on performance improvement. And the best news is that busy managers can decrease emphasis on some of the activities we have done in the past that have the least impact. In other words, we can edit our “To-Do” list to ensure that all remaining activities have maximum impact. The chart below clearly shows the distinct advantage in results of applying similar levels of effort toward either resolving problems (i.e., correcting weaknesses) or leveraging success (i.e., building strengths). We can only achieve incremental improvement by emphasizing the former, while the latter offers the type of “breakthrough” results we really seek.
By focusing on just a few recommended activities, organizations can greatly improve both workforce and leadership quality, which is very high on the list of CEO top priorities and for good reason. In their excellent work, When Teams Work Best, Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson show that companies with “top tier” leadership quality (“great” leaders) outperform their competitors in revenue margins by over 500 percent, in net income by over 700 percent, and in stock price performance by over 800 percent. As we suspected, a manager’s, or maybe I should say a leader’s, role does have a significant impact on employee performance and now we can offer specific, empirically justified suggestions for improvement. It seems we can use hard science to help apply the soft skill of leadership!
1 “Employee Performance
Improvement: Understanding Your Role as a Manager,” Catalog No. TD11A8Q65,
Corporate Executive Board, 2003, p. 19.
About the Author
Posted by GovLeaders.org with the author's kind permission.
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