Jon Greenawalt, SVP of 15Five, speaking at the Boston conference (Photos by Rick Friedman for From Day One)

Jon Greenawalt had spent 20 years at a company he helped build. While he still loved the work he was doing and the people he worked with, he noticed that he was no longer growing, nor were his strengths being fully leveraged. “I thought I was going to stay there for life,” he told the audience at From Day One’s Boston conference in Boston on the realignment of the relationship between workers and their employers. “I made one of the toughest decisions in my life”, when he left to become the chief people and culture officer at Boston-based SharkNinja. Today he is the SVP of customer transformation at 15Five, which combines continuous performance-management software with coaching, training and development for leaders and managers.

Greenawalt pointed out that about 47 million people quit their jobs last year, and statistics show they are not just quitting their companies, they’re quitting their managers. Now more than ever, managers are the linchpin for supporting the career growth, learning, and development of their teams, and are the leading reasons why people remain at their workplace. Issues regarding managers and management have been a sore spot particularly over the past five years, where employee turnover has led to a loss of $223 billion by U.S. organizations. In addition, one of every three workers claims their manager can’t lead a team, and one-third of HR time is spent dealing with the problems caused by poor management. What’s more, 40% of employees say that their manager fails to frequently have honest conversations about work topics, Greenawalt said.

As perhaps the most burdened and maligned workers in the past two years, managers can benefit from a set of science-back people skills that foster a healthy relationship with their teams, Greenawalt said in a talk titled, “6 Skills Your Manager Needs to Thrive in 2022.” Highlights:

Be Vulnerable First, and Often 

Separating the work self from the real-life self is a persistent workplace myth. But in reality, it’s all one life. “This does not mean that you shouldn’t create boundaries and respect people’s boundaries. As leaders and managers, we really need to do that,” Greenawalt explained. Right. “But who we are at work is going to have a direct impact on who we are at home.” Work, in fact, is a significant part of our lives. Leading with vulnerability is the key: One does not need to establish a relationship of trust beforehand. “If you have to trust someone to be vulnerable, you have it backward,” Greenawalt said, citing organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

Said Greenawalt: “Managers and leaders have to provide way more positive than negative feedback”

The goal is to create a foundation of psychological safety. “We have to set our vulnerability before people feel confident," Greenawalt said. “I know I have to set the standard with my team.” He starts his weekly meetings by outlining what is happening in his life and what he is dealing with. “I can literally feel the difference with my team when I do that. I can see the shift in the environment. Being open and vulnerable as a leader is important in building strong relationships.” 

Create Role Clarity Through Clear Performance Agreements

Only 50% of employees know what’s expected of them, Greenawalt said, adding that managers are equally in the dark. Knowledge of performance expectations empowers employees. If they’re informed enough, they are able to challenge the status quo, admit to mistakes, engage in lateral thinking, and are keen to find innovations within the scope of their work. “We should turn expectations into agreements,” said Greenawalt. “A great manager does not leave expectations to chance.”

He proposed a kind of job description on steroids, with clearly stated agreements rather than the trap of uncommunicative expectations. A good outline includes the role overview, responsibilities, desired outcomes, near-term projects or goals. “[Then] you get a little bit more meat on the bones where you’re defining longer-term objectives, like listing out what the desired outcomes are, and key metrics for success.”

Support Meaningful and Aligned Career Growth

Research shows that another big reason people leave their jobs is because they either don’t like the work they are doing, they’re not growing, or their strengths are misunderstood and they feel under-utilized. “Managers need to be better at helping people grow,” Greenawalt said. “Cultivate and reinforce people's strengths!” As a manager, finding people’s strengths is part of the job description. “It does not need to take that long to discover how to leverage your strengths, values and passions in the workplace” Greenawalt assured, once managers learn know how to strength-spot and help their people focus on doing their best work.

Give More Positive Feedback Than Negative Feedback

We all experience some degree of “negativity bias.” After all, we spent the past two years doom-scrolling, and became somewhat morbidly attracted to the news and negativity surrounding it all. “Human beings are sponges for bad news,” said Greenawalt. He observed that someone can say something positive, but the glow doesn’t last long for us: called positive-negative asymmetry, we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than the joy of praise. To make it stick, “managers and leaders have to provide way more positive than negative feedback,” he said. “We need to pour on the praise more often for it to have a lasting impact. In doing so, we’re able to tip the scale.” And no, positive feedback does not make people soft. It is another myth that leaders need to overcome to empower their workforce.

Offer Observation Over Judgment When Giving Feedback

Providing feedback using judgments places a label on individuals and their behavior, and often leads to arguments. Say an employee named Taylor has fallen short of their performance requirement. It might come naturally to lead with, “Taylor, you obviously don’t care about your team performance because you keep missing deadlines.” It’s best to shift to sharing observations - as in what did you see, hear or notice, which specifically address the event or behavior that needs to be redirected. “Taylor, I noticed you’ve missed three out of the fourdeadlines for the projects you’ve worked on,” for example, is more effective than accusing Taylor of not caring about her team.

Start One-on-Ones With Five Minutes of Relating to Strengthen the Relationship

Don’t just dive into the tactics: human beings absorb energy through interactions with people, a phenomenon known as relational energy. “It has an immediate and direct impact,” said Greenawalt. “We have to show up great because it impacts people, they suck it up our energy, and their energy also impacts you. I get so much energy from my team, and I know they do from me.” Good one-on-one and team meeting openers include: How are you doing? How are things going with your kids? “This is a great practice and part of culture at 15Five. It’s critical,” he concluded. “The  need for cultivating relational mastery is really important in the workplace, particularly in a hybrid or remote-work environment.”

Editor’s Note: From Day One would like to thank our partner 15Five, who sponsored this Thought Leadership Spotlight.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.