Brooks: Want better managers? You need to develop better workers

When HR focuses on employee development, it can ultimately elevate manager capability.
By: | August 16, 2021

Everyone in HR knows the mantra that “employees join organizations and leave managers.” The health of the manager-employee relationship is hugely predictive of performance, engagement, advancement and retention of employees. And it truly is a relationship, thanks to the human dynamics of emotions, sensitivities, needs and connection that come into play. In fact, for all of the bluster that exists around HR’s favorite buzzword—employee experience—nothing has a greater impact on how employees answer the question “How was work?” at the dinner table than the relationship they have with their manager. In essence, our managers are our organization’s employee experience.

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As an executive coach, I often refer to one’s manager as a “gem cutter”: someone who can shape and mold you into a new form, for better or for worse. If you reflect on your own career, I’m certain you can look back and remember a manager who was able to catapult your growth, confidence and advancement; and I’ll wager you can also recall another one that drove you out of an organization, stalled your progress or zapped your mojo. For my private practice coaching clients who are not CEOs, the relationships they have with their managers is a top-three focus of our work, without fail.

HR leaders have a lot of angst about their managers, and whenever I speak to them in sales conversations, at industry events or even in a coaching dynamic, I can feel the frustration in their voices. They have lots of engagement survey data proving that employees feel that their managers don’t give them adequate feedback, fail to set them up for success and don’t show concern for their wellbeing. During processes like performance reviews, HR wastes tons of time “hounding” managers to simply “do their jobs.”

See also: Here’s a look at today’s fast-changing employee experience technology

But I’m here to argue that we’re missing the bigger opportunity that lies before us and that the decades spent focusing on building better managers have largely flopped. In fact, on a headcount basis, the percentage of employees who are managers is likely 5-20%, depending on your industry and organizational design. So, even in the most manager-dense organizations, our efforts to improve the highly predictive manager-employee relationship fail to tap into four out of five employees. What an absolute missed opportunity!

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My sober friends have shared that a common phrase in recovery programs is “You clean up your side of the street!”, and that’s exactly what we need to tell the four out of five employees who aren’t managers. I’m not suggesting that we stop training, assessing, rewarding and holding our managers accountable, I’m arguing that we should leverage the at-least 80% of our workforce that’s currently passive in being part of the solution. Any manager reading this knows innately how challenging that job is, how we’re enlisted by every corporate function to do something for them and how nobody is a pure people manager, as we all have “day jobs” in addition to supervising our teams.

In order to make better managers, we must have employees meet them halfway. This is a relationship, after all! Early on in my career, the CHRO of my management consulting firm, Oliver Wyman, used to say, “The psychological contract between a manager and employee must be that, if the employee takes care of the manager, the manager will take care of them.” Most employees are never taught this, and unfortunately have it flipped, begrudgingly and passively waiting on managers—or worse, feeling entitled and owed something prior to first delivering for their managers.

Read more insights from Ben Brooks HERE.

At PILOT, the employee development product I founded, we teach employees that “your manager is your customer” and help them leverage the transferable skills of customer service, sales and relationship management in their supervision. This means understanding the career and performance goals of their manager, learning the pressures they’re under with their own bosses, leaning into their preferences for how to work and so much more. Our members produce breakthroughs that can reshape their actual employee experience, as well as their career trajectory, simply by flipping this script. They initiate and schedule the one-on-one meetings they wish they had, they ask for support when they’re struggling, they clarify expectations when they’re confused, they self-assess before asking for feedback (rather than relying solely on their managers for feedback), and they generally own more of their supervision, thus freeing up their managers to instead focus their time with them on development.

It’s a win-win, as employees get the autonomy and trust they want (but aren’t always ready for), and managers get more capable, empathetic, self-directed, generous and communicative employees. This closer relationship creates a safer space to discuss feedback, not just when something really breaks down, but more importantly, the more nuanced bits that can artfully shape an employee from good to great through small, recurring conversations. This is a dynamic that employees and managers embrace, as opposed to the infrequent, system-generated and awkward conversations they resist.

Just like we should cut our overburdened managers some slack, we should also extend the same grace to our employees. Our onboarding programs lack almost any mention of this mindset, and the rest of our HR programs and systems are rooted in antiquated command and control, top-down, cascading paradigms that keep employees small, passive and powerless. We’ve seen countless employees experience life-changing “a-ha” moments as they realize they can do something about their challenges. What a gift to give our talent: the mindset that they are in charge of not only their careers, but also their lives, and that their managers are partners in helping them succeed in the journey, together.


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Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.

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