People Culture

Your employees’ engagement is in your managers’ hands

(And, here, Indian managers may have much to offer to the world)

The captain of a ship or the pilot of an aircraft disembarks only when the passengers have left

Leaders must be known by the way they conduct themselves.

Notwithstanding the passionate – also polarising — debate triggered by the 70-hour-a-week work-schedule remark made by N R Narayana Murthy recently, the Infosys founder has often led by example. When he says in his interviews that leaders should walk the talk, he has often shown the way. Reporting for work on time, always — for instance.

Another of his favourite examples — that the captain of a ship or the pilot of an aircraft disembarks only when the passengers have left, is also a profound leadership lesson. Leaders must be known by the way they conduct themselves. Managers – founders or non-founders — are “leaders”, and many great managers script leadership lessons that often find their way into B School case studies. N R N Murthy’s, for instance.

A manager who drives team members to achieve organizational goals in a stipulated time-frame is said to be successful. A competent, successful manager, over a period of time, comes to be identified with the organization, its brand philosophy and long-term organizational objectives.

Employee engagement with managers is probably a better yardstick than employee engagement with the organization for practitioners of organizational behaviour and management consultants.

When a high-profile company promoter greets and motivates colleagues with an impromptu jig on the office floor, many see it as an example to create a “happy culture” in the organization. But, then, some could argue, not every promoter is a “hands-on people’s manager”.

A manager, or a reporting manager, can mean many things to the employees or team members. A 2008 survey by Google, named Project Oxygen, came up with “eight characteristics of a good manager”. The findings were updated in 2018, by adding two more features. Of the total ten characteristics, as many as nine were soft skills.

The difference between a “good manager” and a “great manager” is that the latter, while displaying all characteristics of a good manager, is also empathetic, and forward-looking. He/she lends an ear to the team member whenever needed, gives regular and sound feedback, and pitches in, with the requisite set of skills at the time of a crisis. While being committed to the long-term organizational vision, he/she also ensures that team members remain satisfied and curious at the same time, and always look forward to their next day at the workplace.

Competence, of course, is the basic trait to be a good manager. He/she always gets the job at hand done. Former Director of the Centre of Economic Performance at the London Business School, John Van Reenen, after a study, concluded that “half the productivity gap between the US and the UK was down to mediocre managers.”

A successful, competent manager, who is also “emotionally intelligent” and, thus empathetic, often comes to be regarded as a “great manager”, over a period of time.  A 2019-20 Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence study by Zorana Ivcevic and colleagues spoke to as many as 15,000 people across the US, and found that “emotionally intelligent supervisors” had “employees who were happier and more creative” and they also perceived more opportunities for growth.

But what defines an emotionally intelligent supervisor? “Someone who understands the employee’s emotions, keeps them motivated and inspired, and all this while, keeps his or her own emotions under a check”.

While the employee’s experience in the organization is key, his interface with the reporting manager is even more crucial. An employee’s working relationship with the reporting manager forms the bedrock of his overall employee experience. The reporting manager and his work ethic also has a direct bearing on the employee’s physical and mental well-being. A Stress Institute in Stockholm research found that people with “incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive or uncommunicative” managers were “60 per cent more likely to have a heart attack”.

It’s not easy, however, to come up with a ready reckoner on “what makes a great manager”, or “what differentiates a great manager from a good manager”, or “a great manager makes employee engagement and experience totally outstanding”. A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that in 2020 alone, more than 1500 papers on the topic of employee engagement were published. Of course, employee engagement and organizational culture has been a favourite subject for management practitioners and researchers for over half-a-century now. Clearly, literature on organizational behaviour and the ever-evolving role of the manager is only growing.

An IIM B study of 220 middle managers of IT / ITES companies from across India, by Binita Tiwari and Usha Lenka, concluded that “knowledge sharing, continuous learning, intrapreneurship, perceived communication satisfaction are positively associated with employee engagement”.

While it’s true that a two-way communication process, skills-learnt-at-the-job, flexibility at the workplace, appreciation for employees, collaboration, overall job satisfaction, among others, help drive employee engagement, it’s equally true that managers have started to have much more influence over all other drivers. And, it’s here that “great managers” score over peers and prove to be assets for organizations and team members alike.

There is a growing realization now that great managers often lend their Midas touch to the organization and team members.

The team members then cherish the employee experience. Organisational culture gets more sheen and is further strengthened.

IIM Tiruchirappali’s Abhishek Totawar and management consultant J Raghuram, in a 2018 paper “Beyond Constraints”, observed: “Contrary to a popular belief that employee engagement is in the domain of HR, we believe the onus rests on the immediate reporting manager to create an engaged culture… (However) not all managers are able to do it…”

They further added: “They are able to do their task to perfection, and when it comes to dealing with people, they are humble to the core… In dealing with such a manager we refer to Level 5 theory of leadership which describes level-5 leaders as a powerful mix of personal humility and indomitable professional will”.

Not every innovator or promoter can be regarded as a “great people’s manager”, though.

Elon Musk was recently quoted in a newspaper article as having said: “There is just a lot of super talented hardworking people in China… They won’t just be burning the midnight oil; they will be burning the 3 am oil”.

Some could well argue, rather passionately, that there is a difference between “being highly-engaged” and “engaged in stressful, burnout-inducing jobs”. A Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence study corroborates this and in a study, found that “one-fifth of employees were both highly engaged and were also suffering from burnout, battling acute stress”.

A “great manager” would probably handle this rather differently.

The 2018 Totawar and Raghuram paper, cited above, talked about an interesting case study: “Once a CEO was asked by an employee as to why the company is not having a gym like others do? The answer was: ‘We respect your family and personal time like no one else, and hence do not want to block that with these temptations within the premises’.”

A “great manager,” then, apart from being super-efficient, skilful, empathetic, considerate, is ever mindful of the team member’s overall well-being.

It has been argued that given India’s unique place in the world, the Indian manager probably has a lot to offer to the world. In their recent book, “The Made-in-India Manager,” R Gopalakrishnan and Ranjan Banerjee argued that “the unique set of experiences that India provides, can be leveraged to succeed in a global environment”. They argued that “modest upbringing”, “humility”, “adaptability” were some of the key soft skills that gave a Made-in-India Manager a huge advantage over global counterparts.

A “great manager” is not just an asset; he is often the reason why employees stay on for years in an organization or quit.

When M S Dhoni was not even 30, the IFIM Business School in Bangalore made case study on Dhoni’s leadership skills a compulsory paper in the curriculum. Dhoni, a larger-than-life sporting legend, is also widely regarded as a great leader and manager. Indian cricketing star K L Rahul was recently quoted as having said that Dhoni’s team members would give their lives for their captain – such was the loyalty he commanded. A great manager, similarly, helps shape a cohesive — and deeply committed workforce — absolutely aligned with the long-term objectives of the organization.

So, next time you take a close, hard look at the organizational structure, and the overall employee engagement and employee experience, you may like to focus more on the manager. The manager today is a key resource who helps shape employee engagement, employee experience, and a great manager helps colleagues work towards fulfilling career objectives, while meeting organizational goals and targets. The great manager, then, is what distinguishes a great organisation from mediocre organisations.

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