A path lit by words

Leave a comment

The manager’s dilemma: Is it good to be “nice?”

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 24, 2016.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pushed my buttons. The title was How nice bosses get ahead.

Nice is a wimpy word, an imprecise word. It pussyfoots. It equivocates. Nice is vanilla, neither a strong compliment nor a biting insult. We default to it when a person or situation is uninspiring or dull. “Nice” is how our teenage friends described a boy or girl who wasn’t smart or attractive, or a party that was just okay. It is the word we apply to a vacation that wasn’t memorable, a performance that was unremarkable, or a potential residence we didn’t connect with. “Nice” is often followed by “but.”

Citing research conducted by Wharton’s Adam Grant and others, the article portrays nice bosses as warm, kind, fair, and agreeable. It concludes that “creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation might help create a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and (as a consequence) become more productive in the long run.”

That’s nice, but…

Gallup, in The State of the American Manager, is much more precise:

“Great managers possess a rare combination of five talents. They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.”

Most people, I believe, would choose a manager like that over a nice one. Regrettably, however, Gallup alleges that 82 percent of managers are “miscast.” Only one in ten people have the right combination of talents to be a manager. Another two in ten people have elements of managerial talent and can be developed into good managers.

That is sobering news, given that Gallup also tells us that at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units is attributable to managers. Every year low engagement—around 30 percent for the past sixteen years—costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity. That means poor managers are costing us more than $300 billion annually. We had better be concerned about more than how nice they are.

A better quality to demand of our managers would be “empathy,” the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.” In a classic Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader?” Dr. Daniel Goleman identified empathy as one of the five essential qualities of emotional intelligence.

“… empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions… Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.”


Goleman and others have tied emotionally intelligent decisions to high individual performance and measurable business outcomes, from reducing union grievances, to preventing turnover, to improving productivity and increasing sales.

Helping their organizations strengthen the managerial ranks is an ideal opportunity for Human Resources to add strategic value. Activities where HR should take the lead include:

  • Analyzing engagement survey reports to determine which managers turn in the best results. Dig deeper into the data and supplement it with interviews and focus groups, to understand exactly what managers with highly engaged subordinates do differently. Use the information to develop a manager profile that works in your company and actively recruit for critical attributes, internally and externally.
  • Assessing current managers against your manager profile. Determine who is a natural fit and who can be coached to become a high performer. Have honest discussions with managers, using specific examples that illustrate their performance, and work with them to determine if they are in the right job. Provide appropriate career options for those who don’t make the grade and those who opt out.


  • Taking a hard look at leadership development and manager training programs. Goleman says that people can learn empathy and the other elements of emotional intelligence, but not in the same way as hard skills, that is, not through logic or by reading a book. Soft skills take “motivation, extended practice, and feedback.” External programs or specialized consultants can help you upgrade or expand your current programs to work more effectively.


  • Leveraging good managers to help train the others. Enhance your training efforts by “seeding” the audience with good managers. Not only will all managers hear the same message, but the good managers will function as role models and advocates. Hearing from and observing peers who are already successful is a powerful way to help those who are less proficient recognize their shortcomings.


  • Augmenting the annual engagement survey with engagement efforts and metrics that are tracked on a continuing basis and can be communicated regularly. Show managers how they compare to their counterparts in other units. Encourage them to develop short-term and long-term plans to increase engagement, and include progress against plans as measures of their performance. Again, expect successful managers to share their knowledge and help others build strategies and plans.


  • Rewarding managers for the actions they take to increase engagement with both their subordinates and their peers. Build specific engagement results—not just overall scores—into managers’ performance goals and weight them significantly relative to other performance areas. Make it clear that engagement counts.


Finally, don’t assume that managers are engagement experts. Make sure they fully understand the factors of engagement and the significance of their influence on each of them. Among those defined by most experts are:

Culture and Values

  • A work environment based on honesty, authenticity, and integrity
  • An attitude that employees are valuable and deserve to be treated fairly
  • Trusting and supportive relationships with co-workers who are competent, collaborative, and friendly
  • Open communication, in good times and bad, so that employees feel involved and informed

Career and Professional Development

  • A clear line of sight to how the individual contributes to the organization’s mission, vision, and goals
  • Challenging and meaningful work that takes full advantage of employee strengths and skills
  • Access to the information, tools, and conditions employees need to be successful in their jobs
  • Opportunities for learning, growth, and development, as well as confidence in the fairness of advancement and promotion decisions

Performance and Rewards

  • Rewards that are perceived by employees as fair relative to the market and to others in the organization for the work they do
  • Clear performance expectations and a sense that rewards are performance based
  • Ongoing, real-time feedback that is two-way
  • Praise, recognition, and appreciation for their ideas and opinions

When all is said and done, technical skills and cognitive abilities have become threshold skills on the path to becoming a manager. Successful organizations insist on social awareness, the ability to sense people’s emotions, anticipate their reactions, interpret body language, and listen carefully for the message behind the words. Such managers are more effective at leading and motivating a wide variety of employees, a capability that leads to increased engagement, retention, productivity, and profits. When faced with that choice, merely “nice” managers will not make the cut.

Leave a comment

Is Employee Engagement Dead?

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.