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Three Ways to Build Successful Manager-Employee Relationships

The manager-employee relationship has a critical impact on performance. So why do companies often neglect to emphasize or provide training to help managers build this important connection?

June 3, 2008
Related Topics: Technology, Mentoring, Learning and Development
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The manager-employee relationship has a critical impact on performance. So why do companies often neglect to emphasize or provide training to help managers build this important connection?

Exit-interview research shows the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs is their managers. In fact, the only relationship that may be more important to an organization than the company-customer relationship is the manager-employee relationship. Yet, this all-important relationship frequently is left out of the equation when it comes to performance management and talent retention strategies.

Smart companies know if managers are trained and charged with responsibility for the success of their reports, departmental and organizational performance will take care of itself. Companies that don’t drive home the importance of this relationship to frontline managers, or provide the necessary training, will eventually pay the price via the loss of good employees and decreases in performance that result from employee dissatisfaction.

There are three leadership practices essential for high-performing teams. Since high-performing teams are comprised of high-performing individuals, this model works equally well to show managers how to strengthen the manager-employee relationship and keep employee satisfaction high.

No. 1: Promote Understanding of Shared Goals and Task Relevance

For employees to work together effectively, they must understand group and individual goals. When this understanding is poor, work inefficiencies, lower work quality and low employee morale often are the result.

Lack of goal clarity often is misidentified as an individual performance issue. This leads to blame, conflict and increased turnover by frustrated employees who are working hard but not getting the results the organization expects. Often, organizations will address this through personnel changes, but because they are addressing a symptom and not the cause, the problems will inevitably resurface.

When employees understand shared goals, talent managers can cultivate an atmosphere focused on problem solving, removing performance barriers and delivering outcomes. This eliminates finger-pointing because when everyone understands the relevance of everyone else’s contributions, employees have increased awareness of their interdependencies and thus have more respect for one another.

As a result, employees feel more valued and find their work more motivating, which leads to a greater commitment to the company, better individual contributions and higher employee satisfaction. This creates opportunities for increased collaboration and greater efficiencies, leading to improved team and organizational performance.

Effective managers promote better understanding of purpose by communicating the organization’s mission, values and strategic objectives. To carry this good communication full circle, the effective manager also provides opportunities for employees to give feedback on this information and then takes it back to top management.

The organization benefits from the perspectives of employees in the trenches who often are closest to the customer, and closing the feedback loop can enhance the manager-employee relationship by showing employees their opinions and input have value and can make a difference in the company’s overall success.

No. 2: Ensure Adequate Knowledge and Resources


Talent managers can’t have a high-performing organization without competent and knowledgeable employees who have the resources and tools they need to do their jobs. People enjoy doing work they can do well. If they are forced to do work they aren’t qualified for, they will not be happy, and work performance and quality will suffer.

When employees lack knowledge, they also will use resources inefficiently. Mistakes will be common, and quality issues will be prevalent. When necessary resources are unavailable, knowledgeable employees will become discouraged, which can lead to frustration and, subsequently, high turnover.

Like a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge can reveal itself in the guise of poor individual performance. The organization is likely to respond with personnel changes instead of better training, increasing the chance the organization will experience the same problem at some point in the future.

When employees are knowledgeable and have good resources, they are better-informed, solve problems more quickly and make more data-driven decisions. In addition to knowing what they need to know, knowledgeable employees have a better understanding of what they don’t know, which also can contribute to better decision making across the organization.

Employees who make good decisions experience success on a regular basis. This contributes to job satisfaction and empowers employees to solve problems and make more decisions, which in turn, will make them feel more valued, more loyal, more likely to stay with the organization and more likely to produce higher-quality work.

To produce these results, the effective manager ensures employees are in jobs that make the most of their skill sets, and provides ongoing development as job responsibilities and qualifications change. To do these two things effectively, managers must take the time to get to know their people by listening carefully for potential performance issues and providing timely feedback.

As members of the most-distracted, information-packed and fast-moving workforce in history, good listening skills have never been more important. Talent managers cannot assume they know what employees want. Effective listening can help everyone slow down and fully consider a situation before reacting.

When managers model good listening skills, employees will learn to seek them out when they have a problem. Thus, managers will hear more, good and bad, in time to give feedback that can make a difference.

Timing can differentiate feedback from criticism. Early feedback allows employees to make changes and can impact a situation. Untimely feedback, no matter how well-intended, isn’t useful and often is perceived as an assignment of blame or criticism.

Managers that provide ongoing development can help build strong employee relationships. Development includes providing time and opportunities for cross training and personal development and takes into consideration individual job competencies and organizational needs. Again, this investment in individuals makes them feel valued, can increase loyalty to the company and will pay off in higher organizational performance.

No. 3: Facilitate Effective Interaction

Even if talent managers promote a shared purpose among well-trained, knowledgeable employees who have unlimited resources, it is virtually impossible for individuals to achieve anything as a group without effective interaction. Ineffective employee interactions lead to inefficient coordination efforts, and in today’s workplace, nearly every significant project requires cross-functional and cross-disciplinary interaction and cooperation.

Miscommunication causes poor information sharing and makes it difficult to get the right people involved at the right time to make the best decisions. Consequently, people attempt problem solving and decision making in isolation or with the wrong people. This can result in poor decision making, prolonged decision making or, even worse, no decision making at all.

On the other hand, effective interaction can stimulate opportunities for collective learning for both manager and employee and greatly enhance employee job satisfaction. On an enterprise level, effective interaction creates a culture of collaboration and encourages sharing of ideas and information that is critical for innovation.

Managers can facilitate healthy employee interactions in many ways. One, they can create environments in which people are comfortable asking challenging questions. When managers respond without defensiveness, they model a key behavior necessary for productive interaction. The best managers model effective interpersonal behavior, which starts by asking questions and listening. This is easy to say, but often difficult to do.

Building strong, valuable manager-employee relationships starts with the basics: effective problem-solving and decision-making processes. For example, in meetings, do talent managers have an agenda and stick to it? Do they make sure everyone is heard and that certain individuals are not allowed to dominate the discussion? Do they make sure someone without a personal agenda facilitates the meeting? Considering these questions can encourage productivity and free up time for more personal engagement between manager and employee.

An organizational climate that promotes individual learning also can facilitate effective manager-employee relationship building. Research shows some 67 percent of employees say they learn the most when working with a colleague, which emphasizes the need for effective interaction between employees, and particularly between managers and employees.

Interactive problem solving through listening and asking questions models positive interaction between managers and employees. When employees see that managers don’t make decisions or work in isolation, it gives them permission to do the same.

To Reap the Benefits of One, Implement All Three

When the three leadership/performance management strategies — to promote understanding, ensure knowledge and facilitate interaction — are in place, everyone thrives: the individual, teams and the organization. But unless all three are implemented effectively at the critical manager-employee level, the other two are rendered virtually ineffective.

For example, a group’s goal clarity and knowledge are suboptimized without effective interaction among its members. Employees and managers must have good understanding in order to have effective interaction, but having understanding doesn’t always ensure effective interaction will take place. An organization could have the most knowledgeable and talented people in place, but without clear understanding of purpose and effective interaction, employees will become frustrated. Further, the most knowledgeable employees are in high demand in the market, and they often are the first to seek opportunities elsewhere.

The lynchpin to the effectiveness of all these strategies lies in the manager-employee relationship. When this relationship isn’t successful, individual, team and organization performance all will eventually suffer.     

When companies refocus on this critical relationship through a renewed emphasis on basic, effective management practices, they can improve individual, team and organizational performance, increase employee satisfaction and strengthen talent management and retention efforts.

When it comes to performance management, it’s an often told but wise lesson: If talent managers want their organizations to thrive, they must continually cultivate the people and the relationships responsible for making them grow.

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