The relationship between a manager and their direct reports is one of the most important relationships in the workforce. It shapes the way employees feel about their work, accounting for 70% of the variance in employee engagement, according to Gallup.
But this relationship can be difficult because — unlike changes in workplace policy or workflow — keeping employees engaged is a never-ending task.
That is why companies need a framework on how to approach people management that focuses on building a sustainable system that keeps an employee engaged. Managers need to take daily actions that they already know foster engagement and goodwill in the workplace, or a business's bottom line will suffer: employees will be unhappy, unproductive, and unlikely to stay at your company.
Meetings and check-ins
One of the most powerful things managers can do to boost engagement is to check in with their employees on a regular basis. According to a study by Gallup, when managers are aware of their employees' work, employees are seven times more likely to be engaged than actively disengaged — and when managers aren't, employees are fifteen times more likely to be disengaged.
To spark this type of engagement, managers need to:
- Regularly meet with employees face-to-face. Imagine if you had 10 minutes with each of your direct reports every day to ask them what they were doing and what their roadblocks were. You might not have 10 minutes per person every day, but you need to carve out some time at least once a week to sit down and run over your employees' agendas — simply meeting regularly can triple your employee engagement.
- Use digital tools to your advantage. While nothing can replace face-to-face communication, digital tools are a good way to keep up asynchronous check-ins, especially for remote teams. Commenting on a Trello card, talking to them about their status updates, and quickly pinging an employee about a project update in Slack signals you're keeping up with their work and are there to help when problems arise.
- Reply, reply, reply. If an employee reaches out for any reason, you have to get back to them. Even if it's setting aside 10 minutes midday to fire off emails or DMs, responding to employees is critical to making them feel like they're being seen and heard. Engaged employees report that their manager will respond to their messages within 24 hours, so incorporating time to get back to direct reports every day is best practice.
At the end of the day, managers have a relationship with employees and, like any other relationship, managers need to commit time to connect with employees about their work and aspirations. Just like you might drift away from a friend who never gets back to you and never asks about what or how you were doing, employees will check out on managers who signal they don't care.
And that really means checking out on all the work they do under that manager. Productivity and a high standard of work are simply not possible with an absentee manager. It costs the company and demoralizes employees, who will get a loud and clear message that their work doesn't matter because nobody cares to check in.
Expectations and OKRs
Setting expectations and managing long-term progress are a part of performance management that can have a huge impact on engagement.
For employees, setting expectations means much more than just creating job descriptions or competency libraries. These are broad-stroke descriptions that often do not reflect the day-to-day task list of a role. That means that managers need to set smaller goals and projects and keep track of how those progress.
The alternative is to leave employees to try to figure out what they're supposed to do on their own every morning, and that's a recipe for people to disengage. When employees don't know what they are supposed to do, they have no objective and can feel their work is pointless. That's why employees who set performance goals with their managers are 17x more likely to be engaged.
Outside of daily or weekly projects, employees also need to be aware of their goals and of the OKRs that your team is trying to hit. A shocking 70% of employees feel that their goals are unclear because managers don't provide them well enough. Employees need clearly defined goals and key results to work towards and accomplish.
But simply communicating goals is not enough. Managers also need to follow up on the results and progress of goals. When managers do not follow up on performance and hold their employees accountable for their work, only 3% are engaged.
A lack of follow-up means you are asking employees to self-motivate 100% of the time, a strategy that fails for anyone trying to complete any task, whether it's for work or pleasure. Accountability is about working together, keeping your team motivated, and supporting them when they hit roadblocks.
Accountability can come in many forms:
- Employees giving standups on projects
- 1:1 meetings
- Shared deadline calendars
- Project postmortems with employees and their manager
- Team check-ins
- Performance reviews
The key is to build regular discussions of goals, OKRs, and their progression into your workflow. Regular communication about progress helps set the bar for employees and also gives them the sense of support they need to reach their goals.
If you feel you are communicating and meeting with your direct reports regularly, but there still seems to be a thread of disengagement, it might not be how much you are communicating but in what way you are communicating.
Evidence shows that teams need to have a high praise-to-criticism ratio in order to thrive. So if you are putting in the legwork to set up face time, it may be time to shift the culture of your performance management system to skew more positive.
Having a culture of positive communication doesn't mean you ignore weaknesses or forgo criticism. It does mean that you're building skills and confidence through encouragement and support.
Employees already know that there are ramifications for performing poorly at work. What they may not know is how to improve, how to solve their own problems, and how to feel confident trying new assignments. When facing constant criticism, employees become less motivated and less productive.
Managers can turn the tide by acknowledging their employees' positive qualities and framing weaknesses or slip-ups as learning opportunities to encourage people to try again and recommit. According to the Harvard Business Review, 67% of employees whose manager focused on their strengths reported being engaged and only 31% of those whose managers focused on their weaknesses.
Constructive comments with a balance of praise, rather than uncut criticism, should be the order of the day. Feedback needs to be actionable and relevant to a project, client, or scenario. Managers should encourage employees to brainstorm solutions and, together, managers and employees should decide on next steps or a new protocol to better the situation.
Also critical is that managers understand how each employee responds. While one might need to hear praise first to soften constructive comments, another may feel it is not genuine until it comes after a rundown of things that went wrong. Knowing how your employees take comments is as important as how you give them.
Be the manager you wish you had
What could you accomplish if you were given a little more encouragement, attention, and support? Would you feel more motivated to put in a little effort and more present when you were working towards your goals? Of course!
There are many things that managers need to do in their jobs, but people management, more than any other, is an area where it's easy to see how improvements directly affect your bottom line. Coaching the best out of those you work with through attentiveness, clear goals, and great support pays dividends in every area of your workplace. Employees are more productive, more likely to stay with your company, and more invested in creating a great workplace.
It's in your hands to be a manager who helps others flourish. You have the power to shape your work environment to something that supports people and encourages productivity.