With the pace of resignations hovering near an all-time high, it’s time to rethink outdated retention strategies most companies use and instead prioritize approaches that are creating real value for employees. According to a recent Gallup poll, 17 percent of employees are actively disengaged, and a whopping 51 percent are teetering somewhere between engaged and disengaged. Companies cannot afford more than half of their staff deciding to leave—and as an HR professional, you may bear the weight of retention on your shoulders. How can you distribute some of that weight, and to whom can you delegate responsibility for employee engagement? Look no further than middle managers.
Think about a memorable manager you’ve had—good or bad. What qualities did they have? Did they inspire, motivate, encourage? Did they micromanage, blame, steal credit? People join companies, but they tend to leave managers. Modern management is all about engaging on a personal level, empowering on a team level, and recognizing high performers.
Sure, managers have taken on more in the past two-plus years than most other employees: They toe the line between empathy and accountability for their staff, pivot to meet goals and new challenges, and—in addition to the title of manager—have likely taken on the title of mentor or coach. The truth is that even with further physical distance between a supervisor and their direct reports, their working relationship could be closer than ever in this new world of work. How can you inspire managers to be the reason their people stay?
Gallup conducted several employee engagement surveys and identified 12 key factors that determine employee engagement, many—if not all—of which are tied to the role a manager plays in an employee’s growth, development, and opportunity. In fact, 70 percent of variance in team engagement is attributed to the manager. If team engagement is in peril, individual engagement is not far behind.
Listen and let them fail
One tactic for supervisors to have a positive impact on engagement is to listen to their direct reports. Employees need space—space for their managers to hear their thoughts, ideas, and concerns and space to fail. Gallup concluded that an engaged employee is one who feels as if their opinions seem to count for something. Even if managers don’t ultimately go with their direct report’s recommendations, let them know that it’s always important to make their people feel heard and valued. Listening also means making yourself—as a TD professional—available and approachable to employees if they aren’t feeling supported by their supervisors.
One way I see leaders emulate an open-door policy in a hybrid workplace is offering Zoom office hours—they block off a chunk of time on a given day and provide a Zoom link for employees to join and ask questions or provide feedback. Creating such office hours reduces the number of back-and-forth phone calls during the week and encourages staff to see that time as instrumental to both their development and productivity.
A manager should also model the act of failing and set expectations on when it’s OK to fail and when to ask for help. At my company, during our weekly team regroups, we dedicate time for every employee—regardless of level—to share one failure or challenge they struggled with in the past week. Oftentimes workers see managers as infallible, but every human errs at some point. Hearing their supervisor admit, “Oops, this didn’t quite work out the way I planned, and here’s how I am working on it” can go a long way. When an employee does share their failure or challenge, managers should reward them for trying and—this is important—ask whether they would like guidance.
Show empathy—and mean it
Seeming to care is the key to engagement, but actually caring is key to retention. If small talk and bonding are tough for certain managers, give them a pneumonic device—CARE—to remember.
Check in before you check on. Managers should make a personal commitment to ask direct reports about their day, their mindset, their personal well-being before checking on projects, lists, tasks, or work-related items. At my company, we encourage managers to not jump straight into project updates in monthly one-on-one meetings but instead check in on personal updates and mental well-being first and foremost.
Ask them what they need for success. Would staff benefit from a few things taken off their to-do list? Would a certain technology or application be worth a nominal cost to save time?
In a recent one-on-one, I learned that coordinating my schedule was becoming a balancing act of rescheduled meetings and constantly floated times. My employee suggested that we invest in a calendar-booking tool to eliminate the back-and-forth emails cross-referencing availability with our clients. I hadn’t even known the technology existed, but I was glad to add the monthly fee to the budget and free up her precious time.
Remember the little things. Do direct reports have children? Pets? Love a certain band or TV show? Advise managers to document any insights they glean, schedule reminders for certain holidays or events important to direct reports, and surprise their team members when they least expect it.
Each time a new employee joins our team, we send them a premade survey with write-ins for their favorite candy, go-to coffee order, hobbies, activities, and personal interests. One time, an employee listed her favorite musical group as the Irish band Lankum. When we caught wind that the band was in town for a concert that week, we gathered our team to put together a themed playlist and purchase all the Irish snacks we could find for our morning regroup. To say she was shocked when she arrived to her favorite music and snacks is an understatement, and she often mentions that day as one of her favorite workdays.
Express gratitude and appreciation. According to Glassdoor, 53 percent of surveyed employees said they would stay in their jobs longer if they feel more appreciated by their supervisor, even though 68 percent admitted that they already receive enough appreciation. Let managers know that even if it feels like overkill at first, they should try scheduling reminders or tasks for themselves to thank a teammate or send someone a note of praise for a job well done. Like any habit, once they practice it enough, they won’t need a reminder to make it happen.
One of our managers sends a weekly email to her team on Friday afternoons that gives a personal shout-out and expression of gratitude to each team member. Sometimes it’s commending a big project that someone completed; other times it’s a thank you for showing up during a personally tough week. Encourage your managers to share their notes of thanks with each other to keep the motivation up, and give them some unique methods to try.
Be a mentor
I’ve mentioned the notion a few times now that a manager’s role extends far beyond work product and goals in the new world of work. Another Gallup driver of engagement is having someone at work who encourages continual development. Whether or not your company has a formal mentorship program in place, you can empower managers to invest in their team members’ career growth.
Oftentimes, when employees feel overwhelmed, they tend to forego development opportunities to get all their work done instead. If you can encourage managers to reinforce the importance of career development through extracurricular activities, their direct reports will feel more supported to step away from their desks.
When my company brings training into an organization, we often request that supervisors send a message to their teams to encourage them (if not require them) to attend the scheduled training event, acknowledging that the time spent there is worth the time away from their day-to-day work.
Any professional can be an aspiring mentor by conducting regularly scheduled stay interviews before the need for an exit interview. As opposed to an exit interview, which takes place after an employee accepts an offer and announces their resignation, stay interviews are forward-thinking, open discussions about what an employee likes about their role, what they would like to improve or change, and what support they need to bridge the gap.
While TD or HR practitioners often take charge in stay and exit interviews, having a manager who is closer to the work and role can be monumental in a staff member’s willingness to share their honest thoughts and suggest ideas to a mutually beneficial solution. Questions managers can ask during a stay interview include:
- When you travel to work each day, what things do you look forward to?
- What are you learning here? What do you want to learn?
- Why do you stay here?
- What is it about working here that is special for you?
- When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?
- What can I do to make work better for you?
Another way you can encourage managers to take on a mentor role is by making connecting fun. I surveyed 100 TD professionals in a recent webinar and here are some of my favorite ideas:
Step away from your workspace. If you’re in front of the work, you’re in the work. Suggest to managers that they should schedule a 30-minute window with a direct report to catch up and chat in a nonwork area. If they’re at home, encourage them to take a walk around the block while chatting on the phone. If they’re in the office, they should take that meeting in the kitchen or a conference room. Removing themselves from the distraction of constant updates can also remove the urge to multitask, thus making more time for personal development and connection.
Make it fun. One TD professional says her employees take advantage of the outdoor space their office provides to allow lunchtime or midday rooftop chats.
Don’t underestimate the power of the introduction. If a manager believes they cannot provide the development opportunities or guidance needed, empower them to introduce their direct reports to other leaders who may be able to provide growth insight and help the employees expand their brand.
Do what you say you will do—always
You can probably think of someone you know who cancels plans frequently, doesn’t call when they say they will, or is consistently late. For supervisors, doing what they say they will do is a foolproof way to get immediate buy-in and trust from their people.
How can you remind managers that, in addition to being accountability holders, they are also role models? Inform them that when they are making promises to their team that it’s essential to follow through on their word. They also should be the team optimist. That’s not to say managers shouldn’t commiserate with the team when things go wrong. However, employees look to the leader to help them through sticky situations.
I mentioned one of our managers who sends weekly email wrap-ups on Fridays. Typically, there are countless challenges and obstacles our team faces in a week—both work related and personally. Our team is tight-knit; therefore, we share a lot of empathy when morale is low. While some weeks feel heavier, we always end the email with a positive affirmation toward a good weekend and following week.
In a similar vein, managers often feel caught between orders from their leadership and their own team’s morale. It’s often on managers to navigate adversity and communicate unpopular or unappealing decisions to the team, even if they are not completely on board with the decision themselves. Leaders’ job is to role model best behavior and follow through on promises, which includes a few core principles:
- Whatever happens, keep your word above all else.
- Show a positive attitude and willingness to go along.
- Don’t blame others or show a hint of dissent.
- Commit to people first, decisions second.
Get employees to stay
Inspiring managers to go above and beyond can be challenging, but it’s rewarding and worthwhile if you invest the time and effort and watch middle managers grow and retain strong teams. When managers are struggling to take time away to focus on their people, remind them that more than half of employees would stay at a company if they received more appreciation from their supervisors. Then practice what you preach and show the managers some appreciation with the fact that 68 percent of employees already feel appreciated by their managers.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Issue of TD Magazine