Saturday, June 15, 2024

Managers are dealing with a massive blind spot, and it feeds right into CEOs’ worst nightmare

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In the tense moments of a rom-com, the estranged couple will glance mournfully at each other at inopportune times—sometimes until the distracted Brad Pitt character gets hit by a car. In others, the partners will shirk communication and shrug to the point where the viewer feels like shaking Paul Mescal’s mumbling character in Normal People and telling the two to just talk to each other.

Whether it be in When Harry Met Sally or an office, easily avoided miscommunication can damage a relationship. At the extreme, employees and their managers can act like a dysfunctional couple, where one partner thinks they are offering appreciation and praise and the other partner feels unseen and undervalued.

Part of the problem is a gap in how managers and workers separately perceive their interactions, finds Gallup in a survey of more than 2,700 managers and 12,700 individual contributors. 

At issue is the fact that bosses are perhaps more confident than they should be when walking away from a meeting with their employees. Giving praise is a particular achilles heel for them, even though they don’t know it. Some 60% of managers report feeling like they are good at acknowledging a team’s efforts. But that doesn’t match up with how their team perceives things: Only 35% of individual contributors report feeling similarly. While bosses know a lot of their main weaknesses have a critical impact on engagement, this remains a gargantuan blind spot.

“Recognition isn’t happening as often as managers think, or it’s not being delivered in a memorable way for employees,” writes Ben Wigert in the Gallup report. 

Ignoring the hard work that people put in can be incredibly damaging in the long run. If employees feeling burnt and leaving doesn’t strike a chord with executives, the promise of weakened productivity might. CEOs are preoccupied with the pace at how things get done, as an Atlassian study found that most Fortune 500 executives think low productivity is their top challenge. 

It seems as if CEOs can resolve their own problem, as weak management often feeds into the productivity bind that keeps the C-suite up at night. “Changing how people are managed is perhaps the easiest way to boost productivity within organizations,” explains Wigert.

In the case of high-performers, who account for an oversized amount of productivity, failing to recognize or reward their efforts can lead to them walking out the door. “Just because you’re not paying attention to those folks, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs,”  senior lecturer in organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, Heidi Brooks, told Fortune’s Trey Williams. “And usually their needs are very simple,” she added, noting that “simple acknowledgment goes far.” 

And managers have another blind spot when it comes to the frequency of their feedback. While 50% of managers think they give weekly feedback, only 30% of employees feel similarly. Perhaps what a boss thinks of a moment of constructive criticism might come off as a passing comment, especially when delivered online in remote or hybrid workforces which can breed  avenues of miscommunication. 

Another critical point of unaddressed weakness is the culture that management promises. Managers are more likely to think they foster a “collaborative team environment” than non-managers are, per Gallup’s report.

But there are some points where employees and their bosses are aligned about how they work together. Some agreed management’s expertise included responsiveness, high-quality feedback, and approachability. Not including the high-quality feedback, many of these strengths are more straightforward, notes Wigert. He explains that these logistical skills, like being able to provide resources, have low impact on engagement and productivity.  

Some points of weakness are known by both parties, including a lack of meaningful weekly feedback, ability to motivate team members, and elimination of the barriers to performance. Unlike management’s strengths, these weaknesses are highly correlated with engagement and therefore also retention and productivity, Gallup adds.

Of course, managers are not the only ones responsible for these blind spots. Many are caught in a larger cycle, experiencing burnout as they navigate tension between higher-ups and those who report to them. During the pandemic, this pressure became all the more apparent. And a good number of bosses are “accidental managers,” who have no formal experience in their roles and are finding their requests for training ignored. 

Only 36% of managers report to Gallup that they receive formal feedback from peers. And many see their sore spots: as four in 10 say they’re not advanced or at expert levels of proficiency in engaging employees or managing their performance. A higher share, six in 10, say they’re not advanced or expert at “developing employees and helping them create career paths.”

It seems as if management is also experiencing the blues, aware that their blind spots are bleeding into productivity woes. Perhaps a helping hand could come from the higher-ups, and in rom-com style, the two opposing forces can come to a resolution. If CEOs are to really fix their worst nightmare, they’ll have to provide training for managers so they can have their own corporate version of last-minute running to catch someone before they get on the last flight out of town—or into their next job.

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