Apples to Oranges: The Shifting Role of Managers

by Stephan Hagelauer

And What They Should Do Differently to Achieve Better Results


LinkedIn is the go-to social media platform for the business world, with more than 500 million members in 200 countries and territories. So it’s no surprise that much of the content discusses some element of leadership, from tips on how to manage people to the secrets of successful managers.

And yet, few people have a solid understanding of the shifting role of managers in today’s workforce — or the specifics of what they need to do differently.

In my post, From “Rinse-and-Repeat” to Performance Coaching, I discussed the change from managers who supervise to managers who are catalysts for innovative thinking. This time, I’ll address what managers can do on a daily basis to engage their direct reports and achieve better results through their people.

The insights I share are far from theoretical. They come from the Top Workplaces research Energage has conducted over the past 11 years, with findings from more than 380 million data points and over 16 million employee voices from 47,000+ U.S. organizations. Using this data, we can clearly identify the traits that differentiate leading organizations from average ones.

Most firms — meaning those that have not achieved Top Workplaces caliber — lack the structure necessary to support the shifting role of managers. They are stuck in a rut with things like annual performance evaluations and stack ranking, where employees are graded against one another. Once upon a time, these assessments were considered a best practice for high-performance teams. This is no longer the case. The shift from managing performance to developing it requires a new and different approach, one that replaces annual reviews with a regular cadence of personalized feedback to encourage continual learning and growth.

Our research also tells us that managers play a critical role in helping employees become engaged with their work and building a healthy organizational culture. The employee/manager relationship is one of four key relationships that help to create a positive work experience for individuals. The other three include an employee’s relationship with their work, their colleagues and customers, and their organization (with senior leaders by proxy).

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Two things managers should do, starting today

1. Communicate
And communicate differently. Be more of a coach than a supervisor. This means conversations with employees have to change, focusing on desired future actions rather than dwelling on past mistakes.

The frequency of these conversations has to change as well, to a regular cadence that promotes year-round engagement instead of an annual review. It’s a two-way dialogue, with the manager both delivering and requesting feedback from employees.

Before any of this happens, managers need to first take the time to understand their employees as individuals. Sure, they come to work to do a job and achieve their goals. But they also have a life outside of work. There may be personal challenges, financial burdens, school-age children, aging parents, sick pets. Any number of these issues can lurk below the waterline, representing potential problems managers can’t be aware of — unless they know their employees on a human level.

2. Get close and be collaborative
Some managers may be uncomfortable getting personal with their employees, which speaks to their need to master good communication skills. They don’t have to become best buddies. The point is to understand the motivations and drivers of the whole individual when assessing how they can contribute to the organization’s needs. These cues should help the manager develop a plan for each individual, as well as identify areas requiring improvement or skill development.

Today’s manager needs to take a more collaborative role in coaching employees. Managers who are coaches are better able to cultivate and develop talent, but first, they need to understand the strengths of each player in order to help them — and the team — achieve full potential.

Managers are the catalyst for better performance

Rather than simply leading and directing the work of employees, today’s managers can — and should be — the catalyst who accelerates the application of learning and behavior change. When managers coach individuals in this way, they bring out the best in their people, they match employee interests to organizational needs — and they’re better able to unlock potential and inspire performance.