How Managers Drive Disengagement

When I was growing up, my dream job was to be a detective – Sherlock Holmes was one my literary heroes. I still like to solve puzzles, and in my role at DecisionWise, I use data to help solve mysteries for my clients. I recently helped one of our clients run their second employee engagement survey, and the results were surprising. So, in spirit of a detective, here are the facts: How Managers Drive Disengagement
The company in question is a young, rapidly-growing organization in the entertainment industry. They hire thousands of part-time wait staff, bartenders, and customer service employees, many of whom are still in college or even high school. Turnover is high, which is to be expected in these short-term roles. Respondents last year reported extremely high scores and engagement levels, but this year their results, while still quite strong, were lower than expected. To find out why, I did some digging into the data to see what had changed.
Download: DecisionWise Employee Engagement Survey

Influence of Managers on Employee Engagement

The first step to solving this puzzle was to uncover what had changed for the people who were still with the organization. Had their engagement decreased? If so, why? To find the answers, I compared the year-over-year responses for those who reportedly felt engaged in 2015 but had dropped in engagement in 2016. The largest differences between their 2015 and 2016 scores were with survey items addressing manager respect, feeling valued and cared for by their manager, and getting enough feedback and recognition. For the reverse population (those who increased in engagement during the year), we saw the exact opposite! They reported much higher favorable scores about their managers. Because we are looking at results for a fluid population, we can probably assume that these employees have a different manager now than they did last year (or the manager made a major turn-around); whether their new management experience was better or worse is reflected in their responses.

The Influence of Managers on Retention

To make sure I had the whole story, I also compared the scores for participants in 2015 who had since left the organization (either voluntarily or via termination) against the overall 2015 population. As mentioned earlier, turnover is high for this specific company. I wanted to know if there was anything specific that was driving people to leave the organization. My hypothesis was that they were looking for better growth and/or advancement opportunities. What I discovered was that this population of departed employees reported statistically significantly lower scores for feeling like their manager is accessible and approachable, cares about them, and treats them with respect.

At this point in my investigation, all clues pointed to the notion that managers are having a significant impact on engagement for this organization. And in fact, this is not the only company where our DecisionWise assessment analysts have seen these results, nor will it be the last. In nearly every analysis we’ve run that focuses specifically on changes in engagement, issues with managers float to the top.

The Five Drivers of Engagement

DecisionWise researchers analyzed the results of nearly 25 million survey responses—the largest database of its kind—to understand what “creates” engagement. From this, five keys stood out: Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection (“M-A-G-I-C”). We found that the degree to which these five keys were present dictated the level of an employee’s engagement. Our research was clear; when these five elements (MAGIC) are present, employees are much more likely to be engaged in their jobs.  In fact, our researchers wrote about these findings in our book, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations. 

Managers as a Driver of Disengagement

When we run driver analyses on survey data (another one of my mystery-solving techniques) to pinpoint what drives engagement for an individual organization, managers are rarely, if ever, a primary driver of engagement. However, managers are essential in creating an engaging employee experience and can be a driver of disengagement. A good manager can provide growth opportunities, encourage autonomous decision-making, communicate the impact and meaning of one’s work, and facilitate good team relationships, just to name a few examples. A bad manager, on the other hand, can be quite a distraction (as was the case with this organization) and can prevent an employee from experiencing those ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® elements that are so vital to engagement.

When Managers Get in the Way of Engagement

So, are you concerned that your organization may have managers getting in the way of engagement? Here are some solutions that we recommended to this organization:

  1. New Manager Training: The organization I referenced employs a lot of first-time employees (recently entering the workforce). Turnover tends to be high, as most positions are part-time, customer service roles. Thus, there is a constant need to promote short-tenured staff into leadership positions. While this is a great growth opportunity, and a draw for many within and outside the organization, it leaves the organization with underprepared managers who don’t know the basics of being a leader. New Manager Trainings can help new, front-line managers understand their roles in supporting their staff, giving feedback and recognition, and leading instead of micromanaging.
  2. 360-degree feedback surveys: For many managers, long- or short-tenured, it’s helpful to get feedback about their performance. Receiving anonymous feedback from their supervisor, peers, and direct reports, allows them to discover behaviors or skill deficiencies that are preventing them from being effective leaders.
  3. Monitor engagement: It’s hard to fix a problem you don’t know exists. We find that many new managers simply don’t understand the concept of engagement. They seek to get results in spite of people, rather than as a result of people. Regularly looking for signs of engagement or disengagement—whether through employee surveys, focus groups, one-on-ones, etc. or other methods—can help a manager understand how the MAGIC elements are being received by his or her employees, and adjust style and methods to address them.

The evidence is clear. Ultimately, having a good manager does not necessarily mean employees will be engaged, but having a bad one statistically decreases the chances of employee engagement. So should you place additional focus on developing your managers to create a strong employee experience? Why, that decision should be elementary.
Employee Engagement Survey

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