(Photo by Phawat Topaisan/iStock by Getty Images)

Bad managers are a big deal. The effects of poor management on employee productivity, morale and attrition are well examined and regularly reported. Fifty percent of employees have left their job to escape their manager at some point in their career, according to Gallup, and the Predictive Index People Management Study from 2018 found 77% of workers who have bad bosses say they plan to leave–soon.

Poor management isn’t always for lack of trying, but lack of training. To lead their teams well, managers need education and resources. They have to support their teams, but who’s supporting managers?

In a From Day One webinar, two leaders of the employee-engagement platform Achievers, Employee Engagement Evangelist Brie Harvey and Chief Workforce Scientist Natalie Baumgartner, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, presented four data-supported practices companies can use to empower managers to improve employee engagement and  performance: manager contact, recognition, professional development and coaching.

Their recommendations come from the 2020 Engagement & Retention Report, produced by the research arm of Achievers, the Workforce Institute, which Baumgartner leads.

To inform the report, the Workforce Institute asked survey participants how likely they are to recommend their manager to a peer, then asked them to rate their manager on skills like the quality and frequency of feedback, how well they support the professional development of their direct reports, and whether they recognize strong work–all virtues that Harvey and Baumgartner cited as footing for employee engagement.

The goal was to find and understand the relationship, if any, between manager effectiveness–or whether the manager is having a consistent, positive impact on their team–and employee engagement. They found the relationship is a positive one, influenced by the four practices, which Achievers calls the four pillars of manager empowerment.

Brie Harvey, employee engagement evangelist (Photo courtesy of Achievers)

“Seventy percent of people who would recommend their manager are very engaged,” said Baumgartner. Managers who score highly for the four pillars of manager empowerment are more likely to be recommended by their direct reports. Manager effectiveness begets employee engagement. The four pillars, explained:

Manager Contact: This refers to regular facetime between manager and direct report, like regular one-on-one meetings or real-time feedback. Harvey cites a 2009 Gallup poll, which found employees who feel ignored by their manager are almost twice as likely to disengage at work. Engagement, Baumgartner said, “is a significant driver of greater workplace productivity and lower levels of talent turnover.”

Recognition: This pillar is about managers taking the time to show appreciation. “If I’m working my tail off and the people around me routinely make me feel like no one’s listening, it’s only a matter of time before I lose steam,” said Harvey. But in order for this to be most effective, she said that recognition must be frequent, public, timely, specific and values-based. Unless it satisfies these criteria, it can feel like insincere or empty praise.

Professional Development: Managers need to regularly invest in the careers, not just the jobs, of their employees. As businesses slice budgets because of the effects of COVID-19, professional-development activities can be early casualties, suggesting to employees their career development just isn’t a priority anymore.

But consider the long-term effect of professional development on employee retention. Harvey argued: “It has never been more important to help employees see the bigger picture and show them how valued they are by investing in their development,” an investment that doesn’t have to be expensive. Regularly ask employees about their goals and find ways to satisfy their growth within the company, all for free.

Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist (Achievers)

Coaching: Achievers’ fourth pillar of manager empowerment is coaching, or real-time support, like consulting employees rather than directing them, and encouraging individual contributors rather than managers to identify problems and plan solutions.

Many managers manage, but they don’t coach, simply because they don’t know how. This is where Harvey and Baumgartner recommended teaching managers to lead empathetically, not just delegate.

Baumgartner emphasized these four practices should mean managers are given more support, not more work.

“Our Achievers Workforce Institute 2020 Culture Report shows that managers have been feeling less supported than any other level of employee during the COVID pandemic. We think that’s likely the case because managers often find themselves torn between objectives, between the demands and needs of those above them and those that report to them. Add to that the fact that many managers likely have additional demands at home, and you have a deeply overwhelmed body of employees,” said Baumgartner.

“We're not proposing that you add more to the plates of your managers,” she said, “but rather that you ensure that you are empowering your managers with tools and resources to more powerfully execute on the drivers they’re already delivering to their team members.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Achievers. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.