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The number one reason people leave a job is because of their dissatisfying relationship with their direct supervisor/manager. This is a cogent and far-reaching finding, especially since each manager, in general, has a span of control of anywhere between 5-30 direct reports. The multiplier effect of bad managers can wreak havoc on the talent flow within an organization, leading to lower morale and productivity, and higher costs to attract quality candidates and retain valuable employees. High performers will not tolerate second-rate, ineffective managers.

With that lead in, it becomes clear why it is quite important to understand the underlying capabilities and characteristics of top-notch managers. Although the below list of exceptional manager characteristics is not inclusive, and could include numerous permutations, I consider them to be the foundational qualities of not only high-performing managers, but trusted advisors, diagnosticians, and coaches as well. I submit that the capabilities and characteristics around fairness, listening, clarity, and feedback are essential for highly effective managers and productive manager-employee communications (applicable to any functional area).

Fairness

Exceptional managers are transparent in their reasoning and decision-making, and act in good faith to help engender trust and credibility with their direct reports. They uphold and protect the psychological contract between managers and employees. On the other hand, managers that are capricious, unjust and/or unfair, and lack sound reasoning for their actions, are more likely to have dissatisfied direct reports and talent out-migration. Within the law, fairness is directly related to receiving procedural justice.

There are a couple of tests a manager should perform after each action/decision involving their direct reports:

1. Could you get in front of a court of your peers and reasonably justify your action/decision, such as X getting a 10% raise and Y getting a 40% raise?

2. Would you feel proud of your action/decision if it were on the front page of your local newspaper?

Listening

Exceptional managers are excellent, empathic listeners who acknowledge and validate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of their direct reports. Listening with all of the senses is a fundamental capability of superior coaches, advisors, and diagnosticians. As the well-known aphorism states, we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. This characteristic is also reflected in Stephen Covey's principle of "seek first to understand, then be understood."

If you really want to help build the capacity and confidence of your direct reports, and this is especially important with effective coaching, you first need to listen to and understand their wants, needs, and expectations. In a nutshell, an active, empathic listener refrains from judging the speaker's message right away, and instead concentrates on the thoughts and feelings of the speaker--including what's not being said--as well as the actual words. Deep, empathic listening is literally therapeutic, and helps to fulfill an employee's need for respect, empathy, and involvement. It is fundamentally a change management activity.

There are a couple of tests a manager should perform after each communication involving their direct reports:

1. Do you understand the underlying message that your direct report is communicating, and does it match his or her words and affect (i.e., emotional presentation)?

2. Have you reiterated to your direct report his or her underlying message to confirm and validate its intended meaning and/or implication?

Clarity

Exceptional managers are diligent in achieving continuous clarity with the goals and objectives they set forth, and always ask those that they manage to repeat back their understanding of the conversation to validate that their key message was successfully transferred. Miscommunication and the misalignment of expectations contribute to more lost or unproductive hours in the workplace than practically any other activity. We must remember that specificity and clarity help to manage expectations and that effective goals and objectives should be developed in a collaborative manner for the highest levels of buy-in and saliency.

There are a couple of tests a manager should perform after each goals and objectives meeting involving their direct reports:

1. Are your goals and objectives communicated in a SMART manner (i.e., Specific, Measurable, Actionable and Agreed-Upon, Realistic, Time Stamped)?

2. Have your direct reports relayed or reiterated to you in their own words their specific understanding of the goals and objectives you have set forth?

Feedback

Exceptional managers consistently provide timely, constructive feedback to improve performance, to transfer knowledge, and to help teach, train, and guide their direct reports. Employees who are striving to reach their target objectives must have sensitive, responsive, and valid feedback in order to continually adjust their course to efficiently and effectively reach their end states.

There are a couple of tests a manager should perform after each interaction involving their direct reports:

1. Have you asked your direct reports what sort of feedback they need and the best ways to deliver it to them?

2. Have you measured, monitored, and tracked the results of your feedback (e.g., Are your direct reports more productive? Has the quality of their work improved?) and adjusted it accordingly?

Conclusion

I believe that if each manager were rated on a 1-10 scale on each of the above characteristics, by each of their direct reports, it would go a long way toward improving manager-employee communications and performance all the way around. These characteristics are not silver bullets where you do them once, and then everything is effective and aligned; they, like most things in business, are about day-in and day-out "blocking and tackling." Extraordinary behavior is something one must strive to work at, sometimes joyfully, always persistently and perceptively, realizing where one's strengths and weaknesses lie.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael L. Perla is a principal consultant at a sales and marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at michaelperla@bellsouth.net.