The employee-supervisor relationship is not the be-all and end-all of engagement

Let's stop obsessing about the employee-supervisor relationship

Conventional wisdom has led companies to spend countless billions of dollars in an effort to turn supervisors into communicators.

The conventional wisdom is that the relationship between employees and their supervisors is the key to engagement. Bolstering the argument that the relationship is vital is research from Gallup—the organization that, for all practical purposes, invented the concept of employee engagement—that found about half of people who quit a job do so “to get away from their manager.”

To be sure, the employee-manager relationship is a key to engagement, but it’s not the only one. It may, however, be the hardest problem to fix. We have been banging our heads against the wall trying to turn people managers into good communicators for as long as I have been in this business. That will be 40 years next May. I don’t think the needle has moved much in all that time.

When engagement surveys reveal a problem, CEOs generally turn to their Human Resources department for solutions. Eleven percent of the time, HR responds by launching training programs meant to help people managers improve their communication skills. The first of these programs I ever saw was from (if memory serves) Pacific Bell. It was an entry in an IABC/Los Angeles Gold Quill competition that consisted of a box filled with training materials. I have seen or heard of at least 100 similar programs since then. Despite these efforts, we’re right where we were 40 or so years ago.

There are good reasons for that. Ultimately, it comes down to this: All the music lessons in the world won’t make a good musician out of someone who is tone-deaf.

The promotion process is broken

Employees who are promoted into people-manager positions are rarely selected for the promotion based on their people skills. Nearly always, they have been performing well in a technical job but have reached the highest pay grade for a non-supervisory job. Seeking to reward them (and keep them from bolting for a higher-paying competitor), the company bumps them up the hierarchy where they suddenly are responsible for managing people.

Chart: Managers are unconfortable communicatingSome may well be naturals at this. Most, though, not only want to keep doing what got them the reward in the first place, they don’t want to have to deal with their new reports. Research cited by the Harvard Business Review found two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable in general communicating with employees. In addition, 37% are uncomfortable giving direct feedback, 20% don’t like recognizing their staff’s achievements, 20% don’t like delivering the company line, and 19% are uncomfortable giving clear directions.

This is a real problem, especially if you subscribe to the notion that employees prefer to get company news and information from their supervisors. If you ask employees where they prefer to get their news, that’s probably how they’ll answer. If you ask where they prefer to get their news and information about something in particular, like benefits or long-term strategy, you’re likely to get a very different answer. (As Angela Sinickas has said, if you ask people where they prefer to shop, they may answer “Tiffany’s,” but that doesn’t mean Tiffany’s should start stocking produce! Asking where they prefer to shop for groceries will get you a very different answer.)

Training is not a panacea

Training is unlikely to change much. A few managers might come around and even fewer may thrive, but in general, you can’t train a tiger to change its stripes. Of equally dubious help is distributing support material or deluging people managers with resources about how to be a better communicator, all of which takes time they would rather spend on the work that will help them achieve their targets and earn them their bonuses.

Some companies go so far as to hold people managers accountable for communicating, another questionable tactic. After all, no company is going to weigh communicating more than it does meeting performance targets. Given a choice between a 90% weight for reaching targets and 10% for communicating, there are few managers who would invest time and energy in the 10% at the expense of the 90%.

There are businesses that nurture good people managers. In nearly every case, these organizations have baked good management into their cultures; that is, it’s just the way things are done in those companies. They most likely support their people managers with training, resources, and communication, but none of it is a program. Programs have defined beginnings and ends, but in those companies where the culture supports people management, senior leadership models the behavior, recognition both formal and informal (also part of the company’s cultural DNA) shines a light on those who engage in great people-manager practices, and the company is more likely to elevate those employees who demonstrate solid people-manager skills. You can’t create a program to make this happen in your organization. It requires a full-blown culture change initiative supported and embraced at the top.

Ideally, businesses would stop promoting employees into people-manager jobs who don’t have great people/leadership skills. Instead, they could create alternate promotion paths for technical high-achievers that let them continue to use (and grow) their skills without requiring them to suddenly devote much of their time to managing a staff.

Concentrate on other equally important engagement enablers

Should companies stop trying to get communicators to do a better job communicating with their staffs? Of course not. They should, however, stop focusing on the employee-employer relationship to the detriment of other engagement drivers.

Consider an employee who believes she and her colleagues have a voice in the company’s decisions and direction. She is excited to come to work every day because her values and the company’s are so closely aligned; she is stoked about working with her like-minded team members to achieve something bigger than herself. (And they all see the company’s leadership walking the talk.) What’s more, she knows where the company came from, where it is headed, how it will get there, and what her role is in making that vision a reality.

Is she likely to quit because she doesn’t feel that she can approach her manager with a question? She may not like it, but the rewards of her work would most likely outweigh the fact that her boss isn’t comfortable communicating with her.

As I noted earlier, the employee-manager relationship is just one cornerstone of employee engagement. Employee voice, company integrity, and a strong leader-driven company narrative that helps employees identify their role in the narrative are each equally important. When we focus most of our energy on fixing the (mostly) unfixable, though, we also have less time to build up engagement enablers that are much more easily addressed. 

If we direct most of our effort to raise engagement at new programs to make unwilling managers better at communicating, someone undoubtedly will revisit this topic in another 40 years.