How a manager leads makes all the difference when it comes to team performance; they can bring out the best and create high-performing teams, and they can also bring out the worst, creating a toxic work environment. Managers can best drive top performance by understanding five important needs workers have: trust, belonging, balance, fulfillment, and reward. To make our point, contrast how these concepts can be well-managed, and not well-managed.
Managers are the face of leadership for most workers and trust is important. Imagine a manager who is transparent, authentic, and honest with their team. In a high-trust environment people are not left to guess about their future or what work is valued and what work is not. Workers behave rationally because they are not acting in fear of the unknown, or the suspicious. Workers in such an environment waste less time second-guessing motivations and more time being productive.
Contrast a high-trust environment with the opposite. Imagine a manager that is secretive or deceptive in how they communicate. What is the impact of a manager that says one thing, but does something else, or is caught misinforming their team for a self-serving purpose. In this environment workers start their day with a sense of resentment, maybe even anger; they spend time commiserating with co-workers about their distrust. These teams have high turnover and low retention which is a burden for everyone who stays behind. Just as in any relationship, a lack of trust is dooming.
A sense of belonging is important for all of us, and a manager has the greatest impact on creating that sense for their team members. Think about the manager that continually refers to “us” or “we” when talking to employees about the work and accomplishments of the team. Imagine a manager that deliberately invests time in team meetings and activities, or who personally introduces new employees to the team and develops a welcoming atmosphere that reinforces that the employee belongs to a team. In this environment workers share common goals and collaborate on work; they feel a part of something and that adds joy to their work. A sense of belonging is highly valued by workers, even if the work itself is mundane.
By contrast, imagine the manager that rarely references the work done by a team, and focuses more time and attention on individual performance. When a manager creates a culture of “we”, as in management, and “you”, as in employee, they negate any sense of belonging and instead erect a wall that seems impenetrable to workers. Employees in this type of environment will become complacent and do only what is asked of them because taking initiative when they think they don’t belong feels overcommitted.
Today’s workforce places a great deal of weight on having a balanced life where work doesn’t eclipse their personal life; people are defining themselves less by what they do for work, and more for who they are as a person in all aspects of life. Imagine the manager that shares these values and makes work-life balance a routine part of the conversation with team members. What if the manager is seeking ideas and insights from workers on what they would find most impactful on the balance they seek and then implements more flexible policies where practical. Organizations that empower their managers to create flexible options for their employees are rewarded with higher rates of retention and less turnover.
When managers refuse to entertain ways to create balance for their employees, workers will seek out alternative roles in other organizations. While very few jobs can be completely flexible in every way, rigidity should have purpose. When managers don’t challenge old assumptions and norms by asking for the “why”, their team members see no hope in establishing more balance in their life. These environments are losing their top-performers to more flexible organizations.
All work can’t be glamorous or steeped in socially redeeming value, however the more a manager can connect the dots between the activities of team members and the cause or mission of the organization, the more likely employees are to get fulfillment in their work. Managers who take the time to understand each person’s intrinsic motivations and offer opportunities to satisfy them will have enthusiastic and energetic teams. Managers will drive improved performance when they help progress their employees’ careers by giving them opportunities to learn new skills.
Managers that don’t understand their employees’ motivations, nor try to, will get little more than minimum lackluster performance. Managers are positioned to know each worker best and when they don’t make the effort to understand what is motivating them, employees are likely to search for other work that satisfies and fulfills them.
A manager that uses rewards as a powerful lever to drive performance is more likely to get results. Consider a manager that publicly recognizes performance, advocates for improved pay or benefits, and creates opportunities for advancement. Managers should be advocates for teams and people that perform and that should start on day one. A manager that places more weight on team performance rather than individual performance will get better overall results.
Not understanding how rewards can extrinsically motivate teams will result in suboptimal performance and sometimes unintended consequences. For example, placing more weight on individual performance than on team performance can result in winners and losers instead of a cohesive team working in sync toward a common goal. Managers that don’t know what rewards are meaningful to workers will find themselves actually driving overall performance in the wrong direction. Employees want to know that their manager is not out of touch and understands their priorities.
Finally, to build trust, a sense of belonging, find balance, allow opportunities for fulfillment, and deliver rewards, managers have to consider them as interconnected. Too much flexibility in search of balance can impact team cohesion and a sense of belonging. Finding the right rewards means understanding what fulfills each individual. The work of a manager requires nuanced soft skills and investing in their ongoing development will bring out the best in team performance.