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Why do employees switch off? It’s the supervisors…

Jul 30, 2012 Business Daily, Management

“What’s the one factor that most affects how satisfied, engaged, and committed you are at work? All of our research over the years points to one answer — and that’s the answer to the question: “Who is your immediate supervisor?”

…This study is by no means unusual. We’ve seen the same pattern in the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain, United Arab Emirates, and India. We’ve seen it in financial services, manufacturing, high-tech, government, universities, hospitals, food service, oil, and every other industry we’ve studied. We’ve seen it in organizations employing 225,000 people and 250.”

JACK ZENGER and JOSEPH FOLKMAN Harvard Business Review (July 16, 2012)

In the excerpt, Messrs Zenger and Folkman are confirming something that can be widely observed: the one factor, above all others, that affects employee engagement most significantly is the quality and nature of the immediate supervisor.

Anyone with an eye for human interaction can see this every day. Employees who are full of enthusiasm and zest for their work generally have good, decent and well-intentioned supervisors; employees who are passive and listless are, on average, poorly supervised.

Why should this be so? After all, employee engagement is the product of many factors: pay, perks, stimulating work, career prospects, interesting colleagues. So why should this one factor – the nature of the immediate boss – take on such overwhelming importance?

Two reasons can be posited. First, a bad boss negates all the other factors. None of the other motivators matter much if every daily interaction with a nasty boss is a pain in the behind. Chief executives must pay great attention to this point. Many often ask me: I’ve boosted salaries for everyone by a big margin; I’ve added every conceivable benefit; I’ve set out clear career paths; I try to walk around instilling a sense of purpose in every employee. So why does everyone look so damn depressed?

There is only one answer: it’s the supervisors, stupid.

Think about it: if you were forced to be led by someone with a bad attitude; a mistrustful nature; a nasty temper; an opaque demeanour – how cheerful would you be? Why should we have socially retarded people inflicted on us – much less lead us?

The second reason is the missed opportunity. Good bosses matter. They create good results. They get the best out of others. They have a positive effect on customer service, and on revenue generation by the people they lead. When you put in a bad supervisor instead of a good one, you are missing all those possible impacts.

So if you’re a business leader, this gives you an immediate focus. DON’T think of supervisor selection as a mundane process run by the HR department. Think of it as make-or-break for the business. Pay deep personal attention to how managers at all levels are selected, appointed and monitored. This is not something an overall leader look away from.

We often promote people to supervisor level for the wrong reasons. These reasons might not look wrong on the surface: they might include longevity in the company; blind loyalty to the bosses; trustworthiness. But none of those will matter if the person promoted can’t work with others; can’t inspire good performance; can’t get the most out of other human beings.

Leadership matters – and it matters at all levels. In this part of the world we are often guilty of imagining leadership to be something that occurs only in the corridors of power, in boardrooms and c-suites. It is not. Anyone who is given a function, a department or just a small team to lead, is a leader. If that person lacks the basics – empathy, collective spirit, zest – then those groupings will malfunction.

So as you think deeply about your investments in people, think even harder about who gets to lead others in your organization, and why.

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