Management consultant John Pope discusses the importance of managers who listen and talk to their staff and adopt a personal approach, so as to achieve true employee engagement.
I have worked with some wonderful and outstanding managers in over 40 years as a consultant, business advisor and coach, and have learnt a lot about management from them.
I saw an advertisement recently for a system that can tell senior managers their staff's views on the way they were managed and treated. It claimed to improve retention, identify probable loss of talent, get a scientific measure (yes!) of attitude and staff engagement, and help identify impending problems.
I suppose it might work, but I wonder why we should need these expensive toys? What's wrong with talking and listening to the staff? Those excellent managers I mentioned did just that.
A true story
One of the best managers I ever met was the first financial director of a big company – ultimately a FTSE100 company – and he had started there as an accounts clerk. When he was promoted to section supervisor he would go round the office towards the end of Saturday morning and ask his clerks to show him all their problems.
He said that he had never had an unpleasant surprise in his career. He had never found a problem hidden away. He had a progressive attitude, was non-threatening, and was a marvellous manager. He was tough, but his staff loved him.
He said his staff brought him their problems before they became his problems. Quite an achievement to become finance director without being a qualified accountant – he had staff who had all the qualifications.
One senior manager I know, and have worked alongside for over 20 years, started a routine early on where he regularly asked his team: "How can we do a better job together?"
He was man enough to take criticism in his stride, without rancour or becoming defensive. He would move on to say: "Tell me two or three things I have done in the month which have really upset you." Which they did, and which then entitled him to tell them the two or three things which had upset him – yes, he restricted the number, he didn't want it to take too long and get out of proportion. He wanted a progressive climate in which they would explore better ways of working.
Yet another story
Again a senior manager. He does not allow any system change until it has been 'floated' before the staff who are going to use it or be affected by it. He insists that the staff are fully consulted before it is developed. He treats even the most junior members of staff, several grades below him – ugly phrase, but you know what I mean – as intelligent adults. He expects them to be interested in the business results, service to the customers, and performance. And by and large they are.
And the last story
A couple of business men who had made enough money when they sold their rental business started a building company. They said they were tired of selling small ticket items. It grew to be one of the biggest building companies in Southern England.
At the outset they decided to be open with their staff; they put up progress reports of their projects on the staff notice boards and in reception; they posted the monthly accounts there as well. They would ask members of staff, at any level, what they thought of the plans or the results and if an individual said he did not understand, they would explain. Then they would go to that individual’s manager and ask why that member had not had it explained – usually by saying: "Do you realise you have someone on your team who doesn’t understand the money side of the business?"
What’s more, the sub-contractors were allowed to see those figures and were treated – in most ways – as if they were employees. And that means they were treated well and they felt they had a stake in the business. Sounds to me like a good way of increasing staff engagement.
I read articles on increasing staff engagement, on improving the culture of the organisation; and I see advertisements for systems to do wonderful things for human relation in business. I do not see much about the human side of management or meet enough managers who know enough about their people and how they work, though I am sure that there are many good line managers who take the approach of talking to their staff.
Now don't tell me that these human approaches can't be applied in today's world of employment. They can, and from time-to-time managers have created businesses on the strength of that approach.
Managers who do engage with their people in that way do not need extensive or expensive systems to tell them about their staff. They know, and manage all the better for it. What is more, because their people understand the way they manage, they can take their full holiday entitlement knowing that the place will run perfectly well in their absence. And they can be promoted.
My plea is for less concentration on magic systems, complex reporting, rafts of mutually contradictory targets and measures, fewer surveys, or meaningless and perfunctory staff appraisals.
My plea is for better managers with a real interest in their people and with simple effective personal approaches to managing people. Managers who will talk and listen to their staff, and see that the managers and supervisors below them do the same.
John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]