How To Be An ‘Employee-Centric’ Manager

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To keep employees from leaving, you need to know what they want from you. Too few managers do, says organizational psychologist Jack Wiley.

If HR leaders want key talent to stay, particularly in this era of the Great Resignation, they should help managers learn what employees want most from them—and then make sure they follow through.

So says Jack Wiley, an organizational psychologist and author of two books on the subject, Strategic Employee Surveys: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Driving Organizational Success and RESPECT: Delivering Results by Giving Employees What They Really Want. Wiley spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about his research into what employees want and the payoff you get for giving it to them.

Recent surveys show that over 50 percent of the workforce report their intent to find a new job within a year. Turnover is expensive, and managers play an outsized role in employee retention. Do managers know what employees most want from them?

The understanding managers have of what their employees really want from them is at best hit or miss. My global research shows the eight universal attributes employees most want in their manager. The first five are behaviors: that managers show support and consideration; provide recognition; treat employees with dignity and respect; communicate clear performance expectations; and reward employee performance contributions with fair pay and training and development opportunities.

The one skill employees seek in their managers is competence in decision-making and problem-solving. Finally, employees want their managers to display two values or personal standards of conduct: one, that they be fair and just, and two, honest and trustworthy. These attributes define the employee-centric manager.

When managers were asked what they thought employees most wanted from them, only 1 percent stated recognition and only 16 percent stated support and understanding. The corresponding percentages for employees are 13 percent and 25 percent. Regarding these two attributes, managers show a significant gap in their understanding. Gaps of this size can lead to a serious decline in the quality of an employee’s overall work experience.

On the other hand, 17 percent of the world’s workforce indicated that what they most want from their managers is clear communication of performance expectations. The percent of managers who identified this attribute as what employees most want from them—15 percent—tracks very closely with employee desires.

What is the effect on employee experience and engagement, and team cohesion and performance when managers display the attributes employees most want in their managers? Is there a genuine payoff?

Yes, the effect is significant and there most certainly is a payoff to managers displaying these eight attributes. The numbers tell a convincing story. Based on performance reviews of over 10,000 managers in the United States who have been rated on the eight attributes, managers can be categorized as top-, middle-, or bottom-rated employee-centric managers.

On a scale of 0 to 100 percent, employee experience (EX) scores for employees working for top-rated managers is 95 percent, for middle-rated managers 70 percent and for bottom-rated managers only 21 percent. EX is regarded as the means to employee engagement.

On the same 0 to 100 percent scale, employee engagement index scores for employees working for top-rated managers is 97 percent, for middle-rated managers 76 percent and for bottom-rated managers only 20 percent. Research in organizational science tells us that workforce engagement is one of the causes of organizational performance.

Clearly, having a more positive and inclusive environment is a key to employee retention and commitment. Simply put, team chemistry matters. On the 0 to 100 percent scale, team chemistry scores for employees working for top-rated managers is 99 percent, for middle-rated managers 75 percent and for bottom-rated managers 41 percent. 

Team performance is what makes the biggest impression on a manager’s own boss. Calculated on the same 0 to 100 percent scale, the average performance score for teams working for top-rated managers is 99 percent, for middle-rated managers 75 percent and for bottom-rated managers 39 percent. All employees want to be on a winning team and working for a highly rated employee-centric manager virtually guarantees that outcome.

What is the short list of actions managers can take to enhance their status among their subordinates?

First, it is important to note that how a manager shows up to the employee on each one of the eight attributes influences the overall perception that an employee has of the manager. In fact, two-thirds (67 percent) of the manager’s perceived overall effectiveness is explained by how they are rated on the eight employee-centric manager attributes. This means that if a manager rates highly on the eight attributes, they rate highly on overall performance. Likewise, if they rate poorly on the eight attributes, they rate poorly on overall performance.

With that said, there are three attributes that have the most influence on an employee’s perception of their effectiveness. The first is the extent to which they show understanding. An understanding manager is one who listens, is considerate and friendly, pays attention to employees’ needs and difficulties, shows empathy and develops good overall relationships with employees.

The second attribute that most influences an employee’s perception of their manager is the extent to which they provide recognition. Providing recognition is low or no cost. It refers to complimenting and praising good work, giving employees credit for their good ideas, and acknowledging employees for their loyalty to the job and organization. A manager who is good at providing recognition will personalize the praise to the specifics of what an employee does well.

The third attribute pertains to a manager being skilled in problem-solving and decision-making. It is not hard to understand why this is so important to employees. Managers who possess this skill make life much easier for employees by making decisions in a timely way, following a rational, data-based approach to problem-solving, and involving employees in the process. Employees want managers to think through the implications of their decisions and to be flexible and learn from experience.

How does the profile of the ideal manager differ for men and women and for employees of different age groups? How can managers use this knowledge to attract and retain employees?

In the big picture sense, the gender profiles differ only slightly. But here is what we know: men are more likely to want support and understanding and recognition from their managers and women are more likely to want their performance contributions to be rewarded and to be treated with dignity and respect. This latter finding is likely due to the continued workplace hurdles that women face compared to men.

On the age variable, again, the profiles are highly similar for the different age groups. But it is interesting to note that receiving recognition is most important to those aged 18 to 24 while being treated with dignity and respect is most important to those aged 55 and older. These findings fit the stereotypes: younger workers relish recognition while older workers, with advanced levels of experience and competence, expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

Managers attuned to these general trends and who respond accordingly will have an advantage over those managers who fail to appreciate the nuances of managing a diverse workforce.

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