There is a well-known phrase that says people don’t leave companies—they leave managers. Let’s take that notion a step further: People don’t leave companies—they leave environments where energy absorbers thrive under poor managers. Or even worse, they leave energy-absorbing managers.
What does it mean to be an energy absorber? It means someone is a momentum stopper, an initiative blocker, or even a conflict creator. These colleagues are the ones who, regardless of their individual talent and abilities, make it extremely difficult to make progress. And progress is the lifeblood of business.
Now, imagine yourself working for or alongside such colleagues, who literally suck the marrow out of any idea that could lead to innovation or productivity scaling. You begin to hate getting up in the morning, not because the enterprise’s or team’s mission is not noble but because you know your creativity and positivity will be drained by these individuals on your team. So, what is there to do but seek a better environment?
Now, let’s flip this example on its head. How often do you think you would consider leaving a team wherein enthusiasm thrives, ideas are curated, and you are able to get things done due to the positive push you get from colleagues and especially your direct line manager? This single environmental factor would probably come to outweigh salary and promotions as the primary reason (along with your alignment to the corporate manifesto) you remain with the organization.
We know that employee engagement is at an all-time low worldwide, and we know that managers are largely to blame for this engagement gap. So, what are some concrete steps that every manager can begin to implement to increase employee engagement, productivity, and retention?
Form Personal Ties for a Better Ecosystem
The first thing managers need to understand is that they are responsible for curating an ecosystem—an environment where engagement and productivity thrive for every single member of the team. But just as different animals possess different requirements to survive, so do individuals on a team. Managers, therefore, must cultivate strong relationships with each person working with them. And they must understand what each person’s individual talents are, as well as his or her likes, dislikes, motivators, and demotivators, on a deep level before putting those talents to work. With this deep understanding, managers can then create an environment tailor-made for the team to succeed. This is akin to building a positivity bridge based on mutual understanding and trust between the manager and each subordinate.
Objectivity and Understanding
Beyond these two steps, however, there is something even more fundamental to creating a high-performance culture, and it relates to the key insight discovered by the grandfather/grandson team of Donald O. Clifton and Robert Rath in their landmark publication How Full is Your Bucket. This book was published back in 2004 and, upon its publication, was perhaps ahead of its time. But managers could significantly enhance their capabilities by delving into this crucial book.
The book uses the analogy of an imaginary dipper and a bucket that each person wields. Energy absorbers dip into others’ buckets and steal their “productivity force,” whereas energy multipliers dip into their own buckets and pass on energy to others. According to the extensive studies of Clifton and Rath, this transfer of positive energy to others refills the energy multipliers’ bucket, so there is no need to “steal” from anyone else. This simple concept is revolutionary when applied at an organizational scale because it requires a complete reinvention of management’s role.
The great Steve Jobs was a famous energy absorber who made it nearly impossible for those without the thickest of hides to survive in his orbit. That management style may have thrived at the birth of the Internet age, but employees are wholesale rejecting such approaches today. Contrast this with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s manner. Currently sitting at number eight on Glassdoor’s top CEOs of 2019 list, he is known for coining the phrase “compassionate leadership”—which he defines as “taking the time to put yourself in another person’s shoes in order to help the other person achieve their objective more effectively.” This is an example of literal bucket-filling from one of the world’s most successful leaders!
How can managers become effective bucket-fillers starting today? The initial step is to assess one’s own negativity triggers and realize that from a managerial vantage, the impact of negative energy is far worse than peer-to-peer relationships because you hold the keys to your employees’ success. Discover your own mood boosters—activities that put you in the proper frame of mind to lead. Once you understand your mood boosters, you must begin consciously filling the buckets of everyone around you on a frequent basis. And how to do that? Here are a few simple tips:
- Focus on strengths: Weaknesses and derailers are easy to spot. Uncovering what makes someone special, talented, and unique takes more time and a differentiated relationship. But once you discover what someone does right most of the time and how to put that person in his or her strength zone more often or not, watch out!
- Don’t stress—smile: We underestimate the power of simply smiling and being pleasant to the people around us, especially when things are stressful. Smiling doesn’t mean everything is going to be suddenly OK, but it does mean that you understand this is not the end of the world and you will get through the challenges together.
- Praise early and often: Old-school managers are trained not to recognize performance until the ultimate result is achieved. But ultimate achievement is a direct result of all the work and milestones passed on the journey. It’s more than OK to recognize progress, and this recognition can become the fuel that energizes your organization to power through the next obstacles.
- Empower and engage: No one likes a micromanager. Giving people the leeway to try, fail, learn, and improve under your stewardship is much preferred to breathing down someone’s neck. It stresses you and your colleagues and doesn’t lead to a better result. When results are slow to come, engage your colleagues and/or team in a productive dialogue aimed at discovering root causes and right actions.
- Outlaw blame: By holding people accountable for their work and allowing space for failure, you should be able to eliminate blame from the equation altogether. And if there is blame for a failure, be the first to step up and take it on the chin. This will engender trust in your staff and create a culture in which all are doing their best because they know that there is no losing—just learning until winning.
These actions will begin to transform your leadership style and create the winning environment that your team will thrive in. And as an added benefit, you will find your own relationship to work transforming. While you can’t control how you are managed, you can control what you pass forward to your people. These steps are the beginning of management modernization and will lead to higher employee engagement, productivity, and retention of key talents!
Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams. You can find him on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or his website for more information.