How to be a great manager

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The success of the Dilbert and The Office are a testament to an enduring problem in the workplace: bad management. Studies have shown that employees who are unhappy with their manager are more likely to disengage, exit, and even suffer health problems.

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Why is there so much bad management out there? Over the last five years, I have asked many executives for their views on this question. A common answer is that the system is to blame –dealing with corporate bureaucracy pulls us away from our role as a manager of others, and it doesn’t reward us for being good at that job either. The few that succeed do so despite, not because of, the rules and procedures within which they work. A second view is that there is a form of knowing-doing gap – managers know they should be delegating more and giving credit to others, but they struggle to do so because their default behavioural setting is one of control and self-promotion.

I believe there is also a third reason for the paucity of high-quality management in many large organisations, namely that most managers have a remarkably narrow or ill-thought-out understanding of how their employees actually look at the world. If managers could get inside their employees’ minds, and relate to their genuine motivations, needs, and fears, they would do a dramatically better job. Not only would they know which buttons to press with each employee, but they would also become less self-centred.

So how can you learn to see the world through the eyes of your employees? Practically, it means taking a systematic approach to understanding your employees – building insight into what motivates them and how they experience their job so that you can make their work more effective and fulfilling.

Build insight

As a boss, you sometimes have to use creative tactics to cut through the hierarchy and understand what makes their employees tick. For example, you can spend time on front-line work – Tesco executives are expected to spend a week a year at the check-out desk or behind the meat counter, to keep them in touch with what is happening in the stores. You can formalise the notion of “skip level” meetings where you meet one-on-one with people two levels below you in the hierarchy, rather than having all information mediated by your direct reports. You can establish a reverse mentoring scheme, by getting younger employees to help more senior people on technology issues – and thereby opening up an informal channel that is non-hierarchical.  And you can join the squash or running club – as a way of meeting like-minded individuals in an off-line environment.

Individualise the relationship

In most companies, senior executives design structures and roles then they allocate people to those roles. It is efficient, but it completely underplays the unique skills and motivations that each employee has to offer. The alternative logic is to structure work around the individual, by understanding his or her strengths and tailoring the job accordingly. This approach is certainly more costly in the short term but when used it typically leads to a higher level of engagement and higher quality outputs.

Manage the experience

Your employees’ day-to-day life at work is a set of experiences, some of which make them feel excited and involved, while others drain them of energy and make them question their choice of employer. This experience is defined largely by you, as their direct boss, and it is worth thinking through how even the small interactions you have with them shape their mood – whether it is a simple pat on the back for  a job well done or a three-minute corridor conversation about a non-work subject you share an interest in.

In sum, there are many ways to improve your understanding of the people who work for you. By doing this, you get a better insight into their motivations and concerns, and you also make yourself more human in their eyes. By changing how you relate to your employees, you are likely to see a reciprocal change in behaviour on their part as well.

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