Why Ineffective Managers are Keeping People at Home

This article by Rex Miller originally appeared at RexMiller.com and can be accessed here.

Gallup has conducted a Global Workplace engagement survey every year for more than twenty years. The 2022 report exposes how the pandemic has affected workplace engagement. I’ve attached a marked-up copy.

The spoiler alert is that every year, at least in the United States, engagement levels are only 30%. That dropped to 20%. That means only 20% come to work and give their best effort.

Their “give a damn” energy is the discretionary effort beyond what they are told to do or what they have to do.

Along for the Ride

Roughly half of the employees are along for the ride. They do a good job if you tell them what to do, tell them how to do it, and follow up. The middle of the pack is where management spends most of its time. If you feel like you’re a babysitter, you’re working with a novice or someone unengaged.

30% are toxic. It increased from 20% before the pandemic. Gallup says you’re better off paying the toxic 30% to stay home than coming to work.

If managers spend most of their time directing the middle of the pack, they don’t have time to shine a light on toxic employees and deal with them. They also don’t have time to coach and support their best employees. Ultimately, they feel worn out and frustrated by having to put out fires all day and not feeling a sense of accomplishing the mission. Managers burn out at a higher rate and show the lowest job satisfaction scores.

Some companies have higher engagement levels and lower, but this baseline is an excellent place to start to work for improvement. The pandemic shifted the numbers for the first time in more than twenty years.

Why Work is Work

The opening of the report sets new expectations. Work is work. There has been a trend in literature over the last decade creating a narrative that if you find a job you love or pursue your passion, work will be fun and fulfilling. I’ve coached many who have acted on this myth and joined the Big Quit. After the honeymoon, they found the grass was not greener.

I support helping people play to their strengths and connecting what they do to the bigger picture, the people who benefit, and a mission they can believe in. So does Gallup. However, work is work. When I write a book, I go through periods of high stress, mind-numbing craziness, at times, ready to quit, or days of writer’s block. I persevere, and only in retrospect do I see my personal growth and the satisfaction of doing good work.

What Effective Managers Do

The research says that effective managers provide support, connect the dots, help people play to their strengths, and don’t sugarcoat the strain and toil that comes with quality work. Managers must also convey that quality results come with obstacles, risks, and failure. And that’s what makes the effort satisfying and the feeling you accomplished something meaningful. However, the report says that eighty percent of managers don’t provide this support.

The pandemic exposed the true state of management. Employees, in general, are overmanaged, underdeveloped, and under-supported, creating a soul-sucking experience. Quiet quitting may be one symptom of this drop.

Making the Main Thing the Main Thing

Companies are investing time and effort to improve their facilities and provide flexible work hours. The current swirl of energy and conversation centers on the pros and cons of hybrid work, remote, flexible hours, and returning to the office. While these are necessary experiments and acknowledging we’re not returning to the way things were and uncertain what lies ahead, the good intentions may be missing the point. Unless companies improve their selection and training of managers who provide the essential needs listed above, employees will likely continue to sit on the sidelines.

Gallup provides a roadmap for engagement in the report’s appendix. Suppose people could come to a place where they can play to their strengths and improve. That’s attractive. However, It takes a skilled manager to help find their fit and do their work in a way that is natural to them.

The direct boss accounts for 70% of the variance in a team’s engagement levels—all roads to solving the problem of returning to the office lead back to the manager. Eighty percent of managers are task-focused and ineffective. They’re good at telling people what to do, how to do it, troubleshooting along the way, and holding people accountable. But the problem is we need to train more managers who can develop, coach, and provide the support Gallup says is necessary.

Effective managers, the twenty percent, provide fair treatment, manageable workloads, clear communication, realistic expectations, regular feedback, support, and encouragement. Employees who do not receive this have a higher chance of burning out.

So we have an issue related to how we train and prepare managers to provide the clarity and support employees need.

When managers are not up to the job’s demands, they eventually disengage or burn out. I wrote early in the pandemic that managers would either become the lynchpin or the Achilles heel for organizations. I was right; companies are experiencing the consequences. Employees won’t come back willingly until we address the elephant in the room, the need for effective managers.