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Why are so many leaders failing their employees? 28/05/2012

We all live in a competitive world and an organisation without the full commitment and maximum productivity of every single person is in a precarious position. So why is the fundamental relationship of the employee and manager critical to business success?

Why are so many leaders failing their employees?

Click to jump to section

  1. Under par leadership
  2. Customers of leadership - feedback
  3. Feedback & empathy
  4. So what is the impact of poor leadership?
  5. Equipping leaders

Under par leadership

When it comes to opinions on leadership, there certainly is no shortage. Despite all the new modalities, research and theories we have seen over the past few years, the quality of leadership has remained stubbornly low. But part of the solution may be close at hand, and it does not involve extended retreats, commitment to MBAs or lengthy development courses. Managers may need simply to pay attention to the opinion of the people who really matter; their staff. 

You don’t have to look far to see that the quality of leadership remains low; the 2011 Global Leadership Forecast from DDI found that only 38% of leaders themselves, and 36% in the UK, rate their organisation’s leadership quality as high. Their HR peers rate leadership even more poorly with only 25% of HR professionals stating that their organisational leadership quality is high.

Development that leaders receive is also regarded, again in the opinion of leaders, as well under par. Only one in four leaders state that the development they receive is effective and perhaps most worryingly, globally only 18% (20% in UK) of HR professionals believe that the organisation has the leadership strength it needs to meet future business challenges.

Customers of leadership - feedback

With these sobering statistics in mind, we wanted to get to the heart of the matter and who better to ask than the people who really matter; those being managed themselves. These ‘customers’ of leadership are effectively the best measure of a leader’s success or failure. DDI spoke to over 1,200 full-time workers across the globe, to help identify their perception of their leaders and where they see them falling short.

The result of this is Lessons for Leaders from the People Who Matter, which highlights that although there are areas that both leaders and other stakeholders must be concerned about, there is also reassurance that this problem is not unsolvable.

The main message from employees is that often they do not think their bosses are good enough; not only do they lack empathy with staff and have poor management skills, many actually harm their employees’ self-esteem. A third of respondents in the global survey rated their leader as effective only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’. Over a third say their boss only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ listens to their work concerns, and a similar level say their boss singles out favourites in the workplace. 

Feedback & empathy

What’s obvious here, and a recurring theme in the research, is the importance to employees not of the leadership traits that are often talked about, but the importance of ‘human’ skills such as empathy and listening. Feedback from staff shows that it’s not the ability to develop new strategies, control costs or innovate that matters to employees; it’s the basics of being a good leader. When asked about the traits of their ‘best ever’ leaders, respondents cited a range of characteristics:

  1. Recognised me appropriately for my work and achievements
  2. Supported me without taking over
  3. Involved me in decisions
  4. Listened to me
  5. Took the time to explain the rationale for their decisions
  6. Took care to maintain my self-esteem

These are borne out in the further areas in which employees are critical of their current manager. For example only 40% say their boss never damages their self-esteem. Managers are failing to seek the input of their team and to explain the rationale for the decisions they make. Even something as relatively straightforward as giving employees feedback on their performance is an area for improvement; less than half say their manager gives sufficient feedback only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’. Likewise, only half say their manager regularly involves them in solving problems. On average, their ‘best ever’ manager was around 20% better at giving feedback, handling conflict or helping staff be more productive. 

However, the positive news for HR teams and leaders themselves is that these basic skills are just that; basic. Unlike many other talents and skills that are hard to develop or even hard wired natural personality traits, these leadership essentials can be learnt and, with practice, developed relatively easily.

So what is the impact of poor leadership?

The first comes as no surprise and is reaffirmed in the survey; staff are likely to vote with their feet. Two of every five respondents said they had left a job primarily because of their managers or leaders, and over half (55%) said they had considered leaving a job because of a leader.

But the second is even more tangible to businesses looking to get the best they can out of staff. Comparing the results between people with the best and worst managers, based on the perceptions of respondents, those reporting they felt motivated to give their best leapt from 11% to 98%.

Those not currently working for their ‘best ever’ manager reported they would be 20-60% more productive if they were working for their best ever boss, and a quarter said they would be 41-60% more productive. In other words, for every two to three people being managed by what they call their ‘best ever’ boss, there would be a productivity gain equal to a whole new person. Imagine a business with 100 people, suddenly having another thirty employees added to it. Imagine what more could be achieved.

Employees in this research told us they would rather suffer a bad hangover, do housework or see their credit card bill arrive in the post than sit through a difficult conversation, like a performance discussion, with their boss.

This has to improve; open and positive communication is the hallmark of a good leader. If people are reluctant to talk about their work with their manager, they are certainly not feeling motivated. Even when times are tough, every work conversation should remain positive to help keep people motivated to perform as well as they can. Handling conflict is another area where this is important. 

Equipping leaders

There is recognition that leadership isn’t easy. An interesting area in the research is the respondents’ view of their boss’s job. Nearly half (45%) think they could do a better job and be more effective than their current manager, but only just under half (46%) would actually want the position. Respondents cited the additional responsibility, stress and pressure as reasons not to move up the ladder. This may have implications for the future supply of leaders if bad managers are turning people off management positions.

The overall message is resounding; leaders and managers are failing in their duty to staff and by implication shareholders. The consequences of bad management are less motivated, less productive staff who are quicker to move on to another role. People are not looking for their boss to be their best friend; but they are looking for someone who can manage them well.

HR teams can make sure they are hiring people with these skills by making competency based questions on these areas part of the interview process. Likewise, behaviours are spread by those that are rewarded; those being elevated into management positions should be good at these fundamental skills.

Managers play a crucial role in any organisation, and can have an enormous impact for good or bad. These basic fundamentals of leadership remain important regardless of the difficulty or ease of the overall operating environment, and HR teams should make sure that managers have them ingrained form day one.

For a copy of Lessons for Leaders from the People Who Matter and the 2011 Global Leadership Forecast, visit www.ddiworld.co.uk

Simon Mitchell, director, Development Dimensions International

Simon Mitchell, director, Development Dimensions International

Simon Mitchell is a director of DDI and member of the UK and European Management Teams. He is responsible for the development and execution of DDI’s European marketing strategy and consults with a clients in a wide variety of industries.