The Secret of Being a Great People Manager – Overcoming the Knowing-Doing Gap

The Knowing-Doing Gap

A few years back, I came to face with a variation of the knowing-doing gap.

I had done over 200 workshops on coaching skills. I could do near-perfect role plays on demonstrating skills like listening, empathy, paraphrasing, attending behaviour and asking open-ended questions.

Yet, my 360-degree feedback report gave me low marks on listening. I was perceived to be “impatient”, and even “judgemental”.

This is a case of knowing what to do – and not doing it!

Like most managers, I was not planning to be a bad listener. What can a manager like me do? Before I move on to share about that, let me show why people leadership is so important.

It’s all about people leadership!

Let me share a true story of two armies fighting each other:

Army 1: Strength 307,000; cost of 6 B USD; most modern assault rifles, armoured vehicles, night goggles, battle drones, air-force with 167 aircraft and trained professionals who are paid a salaryArmy 2: Strength 55-85,000 (no proper record), 300 million USD budget; no air-force, AK- 47 and some rocket launchers, mostly small arms; a mix of battle-hardened and inexperienced men who do not get salary

Which one do you think will win?

As you may have guessed by now, Army 1 was the Afghan army that lost in a matter of days. 

This was a monumental failure of Leadership. Leading Afghanistan as the President was Ashraf Ghani. Ghani was a Professor of Anthropology, Dean of Kabul University, Founder of the Institute of State Effectiveness, and an expert in fixing a broken state like Afghanistan. He even wrote a book on fixing failed states!

There was nothing that Ashraf Ghani did not know. Yet, he could do very little. The knowing-doing gap.

I propose a 3-step process to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

What is your superpower and what is your derailer?

If you have already reached senior management, you might have some superpowers. Alas, the chances are you may have also acquired one or two derailers. Sometimes, the derailers may also be outcomes of superpowers themselves. For example, I was perceived to be quick in decision-making. It was a fine dividing line between that and sounding “judgemental” to others.

At Great Manager Institute®, we have researched and extracted the competencies that make a Great People Manager. These competencies can all be tied up to the three major roles of a people manager – how to Connect with people, how to Develop them, and how to Inspire them to give their best. 

Structured feedback from your team and other colleagues gives you your people management profile. Once you get your people management profile, you can identify your superpower(s) and your derailer(s).

Ashraf Ghani, for all his qualifications, falls under a quadrant we describe as “apathetic manager”. This often coincides with a derailer – the inability to inspire trust and performance.

At Great Place to Work®, we did an analysis of the percentage of managers in each quadrant for companies which are “ranked” as the best workplaces in their lists and those which are not (the rest). We were surprised to know that it was not the task-masters or the avuncular (country club) managers who explained the gap between the best and the rest. Far too many managers in the Rest fell in the quadrant of the apathetic manager!

It is interesting to know this. What is next?

How to bridge the knowing-doing gap?

If you are a sales manager, you can achieve your sales targets and say that you did your job. But if you are a people manager, your job is never done. The sales manager who is consistently achieving his targets, may even be an inept people manager leading to high stress and attrition in the team.

Sending people managers to training programs and skill-building workshops has limited impact. It is like Ashraf Ghani doing a PhD in Anthropology to run Afghanistan!

The Power of Rituals

For centuries we have seen the role of rituals and practices in cementing religion and societies. What is lesser known is that the same is true for individual leaders.

Most of us are aware of the ritual called “Mann ki Baat” that India’s Prime Minister uses to communicate directly with citizens. There are many admirers and some critics of this practice. What many fail to see is that this has continued unbroken for more than 89 months!

Did you keep your resolution to walk regularly for 89 months? How about not losing your temper? Avoiding sweets? Reading a book every week? Doing social service?

If you have not been able to convert your resolution to consistent action, like India’s Prime Minister has been able to do for over 89 months, then chances are you do not have an appropriate ritual.

This brings me to my starting dilemma. How could I improve my listening?

I launched a ritual called “The CEO Listening Post”. On all working days at 7 pm, I would log in to a bridge number known to everyone. Anyone who logs in between 7 and 7:05 pm will be able to speak with me till 7:30 pm. There are three rules for the CEO Listening post:

  1. Active listening without judgements
  2. Only questions of clarification or understanding are allowed
  3. Closure of the conversation is my responsibility post the call

This continued for over two years. While this ritual forced me to listen more consciously, it also forced my colleagues to acknowledge that I was trying to be a better listener. The comments in my 360-degree report started to change. “He is genuinely trying to be a better listener,” was one such comment.

At Great Manager Institute®, we have collected hundreds of rituals for all behaviours relevant for a great people manager. A Family Ambassador is a ritual of meeting families of team members (caring behaviour). Ek Din ka Nayak is a ritual to invite a team member to officiate as a manager for a day (Developing Team Members). Sole-Mates is an exclusive group dedicated to walking (Wellness). Living Library is the ritual of booking one hour for a colleague to learn about something interesting that the colleague knows.

There is no doubt that if you want to convert a behaviour into a habit, you must practice that behaviour consistently. (On average, it takes 66 days for a behaviour to become a habit.)

Now that you know the secret of masters like Narendra Modi, Swami Chinmayanand, Ram Charan or Marshall Goldsmith – know your superpower and derailer, and craft rituals to build and sustain winning behaviours.

One more thing. How do great managers ensure that these rituals sustain over a long period?

Do you have a why?

Most of us would agree that as a society we are not geared to support, equip, and bring out the best in persons with disabilities. Chances are more that I will do something about it if I happen to have a child with special needs. There must be a reason why I want to be a better people manager- a reason deeper than career growth and business results– the two obvious WIIFM (What’s in it for me).

That is why our facilitators spend a significant time at the beginning of the intervention, helping managers explore the deeper reasons for being better people managers. In a day and age when your own children may not come to meet you when you ask them to come, isn’t it amazing how much your team members and colleagues listen to you, and even go out of their way for you! This is a great privilege and a responsibility. In a world where traditional anchors like marriage and family are weakening, everyone must have the opportunity to work with at least one great people manager. 

At Great Manager Institute®, we passionately believe that people are not resources to achieve the potential of the organization. The organization is the resource to achieve the potential of people. 

And people managers are the bridge to help realise this potential.

Prasenjit Bhattacharya is the Co-Founder and CEO of Great Manager Institute®, Founder Director of Great Place to Work® Institute, India, and a Director at Great Place to Work® Institute, Sri Lanka. Views are personal.

If your boss manages your engagement, what do you do?

If your boss manages your engagement, what do you do?

The concept of employee engagement (as opposed to satisfaction), is now 20 years old. One of the more popular frameworks introduced by The Gallup Corporation identified the manager as the most important driver of employee engagement.

Imagine most developing countries 20 years back. Formal jobs were rare. Most people wanted job security. In a world where supply was significantly lower than the demand, the sellers could set their price. Senior managers were powerful and could expect and get employees to do their bidding without much fuss. Job satisfaction was an academic subject not impacting the way organizations work.

Today, organizations compete to be in the coveted lists of best workplaces. They measure not only their employees’ engagement, but also track which manager is good at engaging teams and who is not.

One thing has not changed. The manager is still identified as the major driver of engagement of employees, apart from others, by the employees themselves. Consultants and Engagement specialists continue to reinforce this belief.

Is this strong belief as relevant today as it was twenty years back? Or should we question this belief just as we question beliefs like women are more suitable for jobs that require soft skills (or less suitable for jobs with poor work-life balance)?

Twenty years back, the manager had real power over people, simply because not many jobs were available. Today’s employees, particularly millennials, have many more options in the job market. If they can switch jobs easily without the manager having any power to stop them, what would they gain by giving the manager absolute power over their engagement?

This seems to be one of those self-perpetuating beliefs that we need to question. Most self-perpetuating beliefs are based on an assumption that is not questioned, leading to an action that is based on prejudice, which reinforces the same assumption.

Studies show a clear correlation between engagement and productivity, quality and creativity. If it is so important to my career, why would I sit back and wait for my boss to engage me? What if she is herself dis-engaged and waiting for her boss to engage her? Where does this chain stops? Who engages the CEO?

While CEO engagement is not what most of us have to worry about, we can take charge of our engagement and start by improving the engagement of our boss, i.e., improving the possibility of our boss investing discretionary efforts in our relationship with an attempt to help us develop.


  • Take accountability

It is a pleasure to work with people who can take accountability. They make an equal number of goof ups compared to others (sometimes more because they take decisions), but the difference is that they take accountability and come up with options. In a recent case, when there was a crisis involving multiple teams in an Organization, most were busy justifying why they did their part. One person formed a WhatsApp group of the concerned people, along with the boss, and scheduled a meeting to discuss options. Anyone from the group could have done it, but most were busy giving reasons.

Taking accountability starts with a sense of purpose and alignment with what the organization stands for. It is not dependent on the level of the person or the kind of job. I am reminded of the janitor at Mayo Clinic who said that her job was to save lives because she is a part of the process that reduces the chances of secondary infection.

Taking accountability also means knowing when to say “No” to something you will not be able to do well. Your “Yes” has no value if you cannot say “No”.

  • Build expertise

Everyone has heard about the 10,000-hour rule, researched by Anders Ericsson, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is often a surprise for MBAs who thought that case study analysis in college had prepared them for real-life problems. A programmer who is merely programmed to write codes without understanding the business logic will be really bad at his job. This is why the software industry has developed another role called the business analyst who is supposed to understand not only what the customer needs, but also why. The programmer who grows faster in the organization invests that much extra time in developing his ability to understand the customer’s business and the logic behind his requirements. Over time this programmer can even question this logic and offer more innovative options to the customer.

This might require you to get out of your comfort zone and develop good habits like investing the first 60 minutes of the day to do what you are not comfortable doing.

  • Enterprise

At the end of the day, there are only two kinds of employees – one who comes to the boss with a “challenge” and one who comes with a “challenge” and how he or she plans to solve it. In a soap making company every once in a while there will be a packet of soap in the automated process with no soap inside! When all experts failed to come up with a cost-effective solution, an operator simply installed a fan blowing air with enough force to displace an empty packet from the assembly line!

The biggest obstacle to your career is a belief that you are a prisoner of circumstances with your boss holding the power to engage or disengage you. It does not matter whether this assumption is right or wrong, but this is a self-fulfilling assumption that will not help your development or your career.

Your boss will be your biggest ally if you take charge of not just your engagement, but also that of your boss! An engaged boss will put in more discretionary effort in your development.

And also give you a great reference when you decide to quit! (on your terms)


Prasenjit Bhattacharya is the Founder Director at Great Place to Work® Institute, Sri Lanka, and Great Place to Work® India. He is currently the CEO of Great Manager Institute ®. Views expressed are personal.