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Research Confirms It: Good Managers Make a Difference

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A brief column in mid-April on Harvard Business Review’s The Daily Alert website, “Proof That Good Managers Really Do Make a Difference,” triggered widespread attention. The subject of the column is research confirming that organizations in very different sectors and countries all perform better when they have effective managers. By the end of the month, a search on the column’s title triggered over 6 million hits. 

The author, an HBR editor, discussed the research of a team of UK academics led by Nick Bloom, who is now at Stanford. Their studies over a decade show that proven performance management practices (e.g. stretch goals, regular progress reviews, rewarding high performers, and so on) generate better organization performance. Their conclusions are based on information collected by over 100 researchers in eight countries from over 10,000 organizations in four distinctly different sectors: manufacturing, retail, hospitals and public schools. The same core practices, less a couple specific to each sector, were shown across the many organizations to contribute to better performance. 

One of the earliest reports on the research was a 2005 Newsweek column. I used the research in developing a report in 2007 for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Managing for Better Performance: Enhancing Federal Performance Management Practices.” 

The countries ranged from Sweden to India and included the United States; several have labor laws similar to civil service. Each of the practices is directly or indirectly important to people management. Their analyses found a direct correlation linking an employer’s results and the practices that reinforce employee performance. (Technology, management systems and metrics are tools.)

In India the researchers selected a group of poor performing manufacturing plants and for several months intervened by diagnosing their operations and working with them to make better use of the management practices. Each plant improved performance significantly.

(It may be of interest that the management practices are the basis for the Management and Organizational Practices Survey recently distributed by the Census Bureau. It’s funded in part by the National Science Foundation and is a supplement to the Annual Survey of Manufacturers.)

Research on Employee Engagement

An entirely separate research track has focused on what contributes to an employee’s enthusiasm and emotional commitment to working hard for their employer’s success. That’s of course referred to as “engagement.” The articles and blogs reporting research or recommendations surface almost daily. 

The basic conclusion from this research is that managers are the key to engagement. To quote from an exchange with one of the country’s prominent researchers, Wharton’s Adam Grant, “Among the highlights [of recent research], great managers motivate people to work harder, longer, and smarter, and they coordinate the actions of individuals to achieve collective goals.” Grant argues managers who inspire their people have more impact on an organization’s performance than its executives.

Gallup’s research probably is the best known and the oldest, going back more than 15 years. The questions in their Q12 employee survey focus on the role of managers. Of the 12 questions, 9 or 10, depending on how they are interpreted, consider the day-to-day interactions of managers and their people. Their analyses show a direct linkage to several performance measures, including customer satisfaction, and that’s been confirmed by analyses in multiple countries and industry sectors.

Engagement, however, is like love or beauty; we understand it intuitively but it’s a construct and different researchers have defined it with different survey questions. OPM, for example, relies on 15 questions from the FEVS survey that cover a broader range of issues (e.g., questions related to senior leaders). They rely on an algorithm for crunching the data that produces engagement scores that make comparisons with Gallup and other researchers very difficult. 

It’s Gallup’s research, by the way, that shows roughly half of employee resignations are “to get away from their manager.” That also highlights the importance of managers since the cost of replacing a valued employee, directly and indirectly, can exceed 200 percent or more of salary. That does not consider the impact on performance while the new employee learns the job.

Government’s Future Managers

If the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act was drafted today, it’s unlikely the Senior Executive Service would be created as a distinctly separate group from middle management. That’s not the case in any other sector. In business, executives, managers and senior professionals all typically participate in the management incentive plan. It reinforces the importance of teamwork and collaboration. 

The management and organization of work and the role of managers has changed dramatically since 1978. Then managers operated under a “command and control” approach to employee supervision.  Managers functioned in hierarchical organizations; each controlled a small team limited by “span of control” rules. The “thinking” was done at higher levels. None of that is true today – outside of government.

Over the past few years middle managers have received considerably more attention than executives.  Redefining the role and expectations of federal managers and supervisors would go a long way toward both improving performance and solving the staffing problem. 

Google defined the standard for strengthening the effectiveness of managers with its Project Oxygen.  Their goal was to redefine the role and behavior of managers. They relied primarily on feedback from lower level employees. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.

There is nothing to preclude a similar project in federal agencies. Google's “8 rules for managers” would be widely accepted and improve the employee work experience in any organization. It’s certain that the new supervisory style would lead to enhanced employee engagement and better performance.

There is also nothing to preclude an assessment of management practices. The practices known to contribute to good performance are well documented. 

At some point, government will have to acknowledge that its approach to the organization and management of the workforce is not working. 

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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