I had an experience while conducting employee focus groups awhile back that reminded me of what Gallup’s landmark research revealed:
“It’s all about the supervisor.”
Here’s what happened…
I was asked to find out how the employees at a manufacturing company felt about their employer. The company was getting ready to ramp up its production – and therefore its demands on employees – but management was concerned that employees were already unhappy. They wanted to find out the current mood of their workforce, because if their employees were already unhappy, what would happen if they were asked to do even MORE?
Different Boss = Different Employer
As I conducted the focus groups, it was as if I were dealing with three different employers, depending on which boss’s team members sat in the focus groups.
If the frontline employees were from various teams – and therefore various supervisors – it seemed like an “OK” place to work. Employees didn’t seem terribly excited about going to work, nor did they seem unhappy. They seemed to view their jobs as simply a way to get a paycheck.
If the focus group comprised primarily employees from Jim’s team (not his real name), this was a horrible place to work. They regaled me with stories of how disrespectfully he treated them. With the intensity of emotions expressed – primarily anger and resentment -- it felt almost like I was facilitating a therapy group rather than a focus group.
If the focus group comprised employees who worked for Harry (his real name), the picture I got was that this was a wonderful place to work. Harry’s team members spoke with affection when they talked about their boss, and spoke with pride when they talked about their work. They were the epitome of engagement: they were happy, proud, and they cared about doing a great job.
Different Boss, Very Different Results
Not surprisingly, Harry’s department was the star of the company. His team was very productive, maintained stellar quality standards, and had low turnover. Not surprisingly, Jim’s team had high turnover and serious quality problems.
Sadly, Jim had no idea how he was contributing to his problem. He called me after the focus groups were completed to ask for advice on how to deal with his problem team. He reported trying everything he could and nothing seemed to make a difference. He talked about how they showed no initiative, acted like little kids, and didn’t seem to care about how good of a job they did. He earnestly shared what he had been trying to do get increase morale and engagement.
It was sad to hear his frustration and sincere desire to improve the situation juxtaposed against his inability to see role in the problems that vexed him.
“Why Is This Happening to Me?”
When he asked me for my thoughts, I suggested he examine whether he did some of the most common – and serious – things that employees report bosses doing that drives them crazy. Included in this list was criticizing or yelling at employees in front of others. I put that one in because both his employees and members of other teams talked about an incident where Jim had yelled at his people in front of their coworkers.
Jim said “Oh… I would never do that” in response to the last item on the list – yelling at one’s employees in front of others. Because members from other teams had reported this, I felt I could share this without breaking the confidentiality of his team members. I told him that employees from other departments had shared in the focus groups witnessing this particular incident.
“Oh yeah…that’s right…” Jim replied. He then explained why he was so upset.
After that phone conversation, I never heard from him again, and found out later that he had left the company.
It was a sad situation not only because everyone was so miserable on his team -- Jim included – but because he had no idea how his actions were driving the problem. Although I don’t know if he was willing to consider his role after our conversation, I rather doubt it.
Conversely, Harry’s ability to create an environment that lead to happy, motivated, engaged employees made it a win/win/win. His employees won; they loved coming to work, they enjoyed their jobs, and they felt proud of the great work they did. His employer won: they got tremendous productivity and quality out of that department. Harry also won: he not only was he seen as a star in the company, he got to continually experience the pleasure that comes from being good at what you do. He also didn’t have the employee problems that cause so many managers headaches.
The Moral of the Story?
This story highlights two important points:
- Supervisors and managers have the strongest influence on employee satisfaction, performance, and engagement. Although, as Gallup researchers stated, it’s great to work for a great company, it’s far more important to have a great boss. Nothing shapes the work experience as much as one’s boss. To paraphrase a truism from customer service: “To the employee, the boss is the employer.”
- The more effective supervisors are in bringing out the best in their people, the more everybody wins. For those supervisors who think the people side of their job is “touchy feely”, they need to remember that their value to their employer is directly related to their ability to optimize their team’s performance. If a manager is great technically at what she does, but her team is running at 60% of their potential, she’s not providing great value to her employer. Great supervisors leverage their ability—and multiply their value – through optimizing the performance of others.
Can You Figure Out What He Does To Be So Good?
Now, here’s where you get to be a “supervisor moment of truth” analyst. This is from a seminar exercise I give supervisors and managers. In the four quotes from employees on Harry’s team, you can find a wealth of information about what Harry does to bring out the best in his employees. After reading the verbatim comments, use the questions to see how many clues you can pick up about what makes Harry so good.
- My boss Harry is great. I love Harry. If we’re stressed, he’ll make us laugh. He pushes us; that’s his job. If he’s gone too far, he’ll pull you aside and acknowledge it.
- He makes you feel like you’re appreciated. He sees you as a person.
- When we screw up we’ll say “I’m sorry”, he’ll say “Okay” and make a joke about it and you feel okay.
- He’ll tell us when we screw up and he’ll say “You guys did such and such”. He then will offset it with how we’ve done something great and how he appreciates that. He makes you feel like you can do better.
Now, here are some questions to answer:
- What does Harry do to bring out the best in his people, based on the information in statements 1&2? Think both in terms of what he does and how he is as a person. To make it easy to report your results, list your observations for Comment #1, then Comment #2.
- How does he deal with mistakes and sub-par performance in a way that allows the person to save face and is also motivational? (The clues are in statements 3 &4) To make it easy to report your results, list your observations for #3 and then #4.
- How do they respond to his way of managing? What is the ROI (Return on Investment) of the way he treats his employees?
Harry and his fellow managers demonstrate Gallup’s research conclusion that “It’s all about the manager”. If they worked for Harry, it was a great place to work. Not only did Harry’s actions make for an inspiring work experience for his employees, they also made him a valuable employee, and made it fun for him to go to work each day.
If you take the time to analyze the feedback from his team members, you’ll find many clues about what he does to be so good at what he does.
Note: Often in seminars, one or more participants will express some concern about Feedback statement #3. If you can guess what their concern is, and why it is not a problem, email your answer to David@HumanNatureAtWork.com. The best answer will win a free CD “Turning Difficult Discussions Into Constructive Conversations”.
Or email David@HumanNatureAtWork.com