Jurassic management: How to prevent your organization from becoming a fossil

Why is good management so rare?

4-minute read

As we’ve written in the past, great management is one of the most important drivers of employee engagement. Gallup has found, for example, that 70% of variance in team engagement is driven by the manager alone.

This is fantastic news if you already have a great manager, but for most teams, this kind of leadership is sorely lacking. According to Gallup, only 20% of employees strongly believe they are managed in a motivating way. In 2018, employee engagement was reported at 15% globally and 34% in the US. If that is not depressing enough, these numbers have barely budged in the last 16 years (though the trend is moving slightly upward). The global impact? Poor management costs us roughly $7 trillion every year.

Why is good management so rare?

One simple reason is that companies treat leadership as a personality trait rather than a role (complete with a job description and professional development).

But even if companies were to write managers job descriptions, chances are they’d get them wrong. This is because one of the main and unacknowledged problems with managers is that our idea of management is a relic of the industrial revolution.

This old-school management model is built on faulty (implicit) assumptions about human nature: namely, that people have to be controlled to deliver great results and that employees are primarily motivated by money. This is why some scholars have called managers “the dinosaurs of our modern organizational ecology.” If organizations are to avoid extinction, their management philosophy needs to upgrade itself to 21st century realities.      

How is management changing?

A new generation of workers is motivated by and expects very different things from work than previous generations. In their book It’s The Manager, Jim Clifton (CEO of Gallup) and Jim Harter (Chief Scientist at Gallup), outline 6 major shifts that characterize the needs of our new workforce.  

  1. From paycheck to purpose: Millennials and Generation Z employees want fair compensation and a sense of purpose from their work.
  2. From satisfaction to development: They continuously rate learning and development opportunities as an “extremely important” component of their job.
  3. From boss to coach: They want their manager to bring out the best in them as individuals and employees.
  4. From annual review to on-going conversation: They value on-going feedback.
  5. From weakness to strength: They want managers who build on their strengths rather than fixate on their weakness.
  6. From job to life: They expect so much from their job because they understand that work and life are intimately intertwined.

Over three decades of social science has shown us there are ways to effectively address these needs. Moreover, if we re-imagine the role and responsibilities of managers, they can be perfectly suited to meet the needs of the modern workforce.

What are the skills of great managers?

We now understand how management has to evolve. But what are the actual skills managers need to achieve these results? Answering this question has been our obsession at LifeLabs Learning for nearly a decade. We’ve asked companies to nominate their best managers (by looking at engagement data and team performance), then we studied them to identify the visible, trainable behaviors that separate exceptional leaders from mediocre ones.

We’ve found that great managers have eight core skills in common. They:

  • Default to coaching (asking questions) rather than telling
  • Give frequent positive and corrective feedback
  • Clarify priorities and enable productivity
  • Hold regularly scheduled, engagement-focused 1-1s
  • Think strategically (rather than reactively)
  • Facilitate efficient, inclusive meetings
  • Lead change well (and help their teams stay change-able)
  • Deliberately develop their direct reports

Not surprisingly, other major studies (e.g., research by Google, McKinsey, and Gallup) have had similar findings.

Of course, these skills do not just materialize out of thin air. For organizations to improve the ratio of fantastic to average managers, they must invest in developing them. This means hiring and promoting the right people for the job (not just productive individual contributors); setting and communicating role expectations (including metrics for success); and providing training opportunities for managers at all levels.

Bottom line, the best way to transform the gray water of work into the red wine of engagement is to up your management game. For your organization to thrive, every team needs to have a great manager. This can only happen when leadership evolves to meet the actual needs of today’s workplace. Anything else and one day they will make a movie about the bygone days when the creature known as Managersaurus roamed the office, desperately seeking the sustenance of employee engagement.