By Mark C. Bolino and Anthony C. Klotz // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
Many people believe that being a good manager only requires common sense, and that it is therefore easy to be one. If this were true, good managers would be commonplace at all levels of more organizations, and as a result, employee engagement and retention would be high. However, only 13% of workers worldwide are engaged at work, and employee turnover rates in the United States are at a 17-year high. As these statistics suggest, either most managers lack common sense, or good management is, in fact, quite challenging in practice.
As social scientists who study organizational behavior, we know that even in theory, being a good manager and retaining employees is difficult. Indeed, researchers have sought to understand how to cultivate a happy and productive workforce for more than 100 years. When we consider this body of work, it is evident that there are a multitude of factors that influence employee retention. In both theory and in practice, engaging and retaining employees is a complex endeavor, and it takes hard work to do it well.
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. As explained below, we have observed 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 problem.
Psychologists have long recognized that people often overestimate the role of personality and underestimate the power of the situation in shaping human behavior. 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.
Even though most managers realize that their employees want to be treated fairly, have meaningful work, feel a sense of accomplishment, and so forth, the extent to which employees feel these needs are being satisfied can vary on a daily basis. Thus, effortful management requires that leaders be more thoughtful and persistent in trying to understand why their employees may be thinking of leaving and what time, energy, and other resources are needed to increase their engagement. Given that even good managers can sometimes fall into this trap, what can you do if you and your management team are showing signs of lazy management?
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 signaling 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. It can be useful, then, for managers to see themselves as behavioral scientists, and become comfortable pilot testing retention-targeted changes before fully implementing them. 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, organizational 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. In addition, rather than blaming lazy managers for retention issues, leaders should take a critical look at their selection and promotion processes to determine why these individuals were placed into managerial positions in the first place. If they were promoted to manager because they have excellent technical skills, they may have turned into a lazy manager because they were taken away from what they do best. If managerial promotion processes do not focus on identifying those who are most likely to embrace the challenge of managing well, lazy management may spread throughout the organization.
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.
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