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As pressure mounts on managers, 3 ways to improve their effectiveness

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research
Stacia Garr
Stacia Garr is co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research.

Over the last three years, managers have taken on incredible loads: from the emotional strains of the pandemic to the challenges of social unrest to the fear and difficulties of returning to the office. And now, here they are, watching their colleagues and employees get laid off, knowing they will have to pick up the pieces of what is left behind.

Is it any wonder that managers are less engaged and effective (see Figure 1)?

Manager effectiveness and engagement have declined 12 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively, since 2020 

Figure 1: % of employees in 2022, 2021, and 2020 who agree their manager is “very” or “extremely” effective at enabling them to do their work; % of manager-level employees that reported their engagement is “high” or “very high,” n=739 | RedThread Research, 2022

Why we must solve this problem now
We all intuitively know that managers are necessary and that this decline in engagement and effectiveness is important to address. However, there are some very specific reasons why HR must address this situation now.

We are currently in this odd time of both a recession and a tight talent market. This means that organizations need to: 

  • Cut costs where possible 
  • Enable existing employees to deliver more effectively 
  • Respond to market demands 
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Managers are the key to enabling organizations to do this. For example, our research found that highly effective managers can help lower costs by increasing employees’ intent to stay by 1.3 times and boosting employees’ NPS ratings by 2.8 times (which can impact retention and talent acquisition costs). They can also enable higher engagement rates, which affects productivity, and contribute to their organizations being more agile and innovative. 

Managers are not the primary problem 
In our new study, based on a survey of more than 700 primarily North American and European employees, we dug into the practices that drive manager effectiveness. We identified seven such practices, four of which are the responsibility of managers and three of which are the responsibility of organizations (see Figure 2).

7 practices drive manager effectiveness, 4 that are the responsibility of the manager; 3 that are the responsibility of the organization

Figure 2: 7 managerial and organizational practices for manager effectiveness, n=739 | RedThread Research, 2022

When we analyzed these behaviors in detail, we found something remarkable: Managers’ capabilities, as assessed by their direct reports, have only declined slightly year over year. What has changed is this: organizations’ levels of support. As you can see in Figure 3, organizational levels of support for key drivers of manager effectiveness have dropped substantially year over year. This lower level of support drives employees’ overall assessment of lower levels of manager effectiveness.

See also: How do CEOs manage their time?

The takeaway is that HR leaders and senior executives need to change the practices and systems that support managers to improve their effectiveness. 

Organizational support of key drivers of manager effectiveness declined substantially over the last year*

Figure 3: % of employees in 2022 and 2021 who agree their organization does each item to a “significant” or “very great,” 2022 vs. 2021, n=739 | RedThread Research, 2022

*Note, we did not measure “Provides opportunities to connect with coaches outside the organization” in 2021.

“Ask what you can do for …” 
Given this situation, what should HR and business leaders do to improve manager effectiveness? To amend the famous John F. Kennedy quote, leaders need to “ask not what managers can do for you, but instead what you can do for managers.”

Specifically, this means focusing on three practices that are directly under the control of senior leaders and HR (see Figure 4): 

  • Enable the village: Help employees understand what they need; identify non-manager coaches, mentors and resources; and design for greater colleague connection. 
  • Create a map for success: Clarify goals continuously; provide fair performance assessments; foster a learning culture; and offer a wide range of easily discoverable and accessible development resources. 
  • Provide GPS: Enable structured, ongoing feedback and provide continuous performance data to employees and managers.

Senior leaders and HR need to focus on 3 organizational practices to enable manager effectiveness.

Figure 4: The three areas organizations need to focus on to enable manager effectiveness | RedThread Research, 2022

We will discuss these 3 practices in more detail in our upcoming webinar. We also have a full research report to be published later this month on this topic.

Be the change
It is easy to shift the blame for managers’ dip in effectiveness onto managers themselves. However, our research indicates that managers are not the problem; instead, the difficulty lies in the ineffective support organizations provide to enable managers.

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Senior leaders and HR need to lead the change they want to see in managers. Put in place the resources to support managers by enabling the village, creating a map to success and providing GPS.

As a result of these efforts, you can expect higher engagement, retention and net promoter scores—all of which will help drive better cost savings and growth in the (likely) upcoming recessionary months.