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Do we still need managers? Most workers say ‘no’

What we need from our managers has changed. But how we select and train them hasn’t.

Do we still need managers? Most workers say ‘no’
[Source photo: fauxels/Pexels]

The vast majority of American workers believe they can do their jobs effectively without the supervision of a manager, and during the ongoing Great Resignation, employers might want to take notice.

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In a recent survey of 3,000 American workers conducted by GoodHire, 83% of respondents said they could do their job without a manager. That number increases to 89% for finance and insurance professionals, 88% among healthcare workers, and 87% for those in hospitality, science, and technology roles. Beyond that, 84% of respondents said they could do their manager’s job, and 82% said they would consider quitting because of a bad manager.

“Often people equate being a manager with micromanaging people, and I don’t think that’s the best way to manage,” says GoodHire CEO Mike Grossman. “People do their best work when they’re not micromanaged, and in many cases they don’t need to have that much oversight.”

Grossman says the widely shared sentiment toward managers can be traced back to two primary causes: how they’re selected, and how they’re trained (or not trained).

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“People are sort of self-taught when it comes to being a manager in many cases, so it’s not surprising that they would replicate behaviors that have been modeled for them in other organizations, and often those aren’t the best practices,” he says. “The other reason is that probably a lot of people got promoted into management positions because they were very self-interested—they have been pursuing their own goals and ambitions—so it rewards folks who may not be as empathetic.”

According to a 2018 study by WestMonroe, 34% of managers receive no manager-specific training. That number increases to 59% for those who oversee one or two people, and 41% for those overseeing three to five. Furthermore, 43% of all managers do not receive management-specific training in their first year on the job.

Empathetic Managers Wanted

While managers are often promoted as recognition of their job performance, individual accomplishments are rarely a strong indicator of managerial abilities. In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, there has been a broader recognition of the importance of demonstrating empathy as a manager. According to a recent study conducted by EY Consulting, 90% of American workers equate empathetic leadership with higher job satisfaction, 88% say it builds employee loyalty, and 79% agree that it reduces turnover.

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“The best managers are people who genuinely care about the people they work with, and [who] report to them,” says Grossman. “It’s not just lip service, it’s not just rhetoric; they actually care about the people, how happy they are, about their professional development, and they invest the time and energy to help folks on their team.”

According to another recent survey, however, this one conducted by Gartner, only 47% of managers feel they are prepared to lead with empathy.

“We’re going from someone who manages the tasks of their employees to someone who has to be almost like a social worker or school counselor to support their employees as they confront challenges, both at work and in their personal lives,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner’s HR practice. “If you don’t want your employees talking to you about their personal situations, their personal needs, and if you’re not going to be there to support them, odds are you shouldn’t be a manager.”

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Employees Now Turn To Colleagues, Not Managers, For Help

Kropp adds that managers are traditionally promoted because they have mastered a specific job, and are assigned to assist others in completing those same tasks. Over time, however, he says the responsibilities of managers—and the number of workers who report to them—have skyrocketed, making it more difficult to provide that hands-on assistance. According to the Gartner survey, 70% of midsize HR leaders say managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

“When you compare now to about 15 years ago, the average manager’s span of control has increased by about 70%, so the average manager has a lot more direct reports than they ever did before,” he says. “When I’m one of many people trying to get in touch with my manager, it just makes it harder for that manager to find time for me.”

As a result, Kropp says employees are turning to their colleagues for the help and advice they would have traditionally sought from a manager. “Employees feel like their managers know less about their day-to-day work than their peers and coworkers do, so employees are more likely to turn to their coworkers to get advice and coaching for how to do their job,” he says. “You put all of that together, and that creates an environment where the average employee gets more value out of their peer relationship than their managerial relationship.”

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Managers Are A Key Driver of Workplace Toxicity

Not only have managers become less of a resource to their direct reports, they’re also a primary source of toxicity in the workplace. According to a recent study conducted by CultureX, a toxic corporate culture is the number one cause of employee attrition, and is more than 10 times more likely to be the cause of an employee’s departure than compensation. “Leaders play a disproportionate role in shaping toxic cultures and specifically toxic micro-cultures,” says Charles Sull, cofounder of CultureX.

Toxic cultures, according to Sull, often accept or even promote disrespectful behavior, discrimination, and inequity. He says the effects of a toxic culture can be detrimental to business performance, but have an even more concerning role in causing employee burnout, depression, and even suicide.

Sull explains that toxic cultures are rarely spread universally across large organizations. They more frequently will show up in specific teams or pockets of the organizations, which he refers to as “microcultures.” He adds that managers are often the single greatest source of toxicity within these microcultures. “Leadership has such an important role in culture that it’s impossible to disentangle them,” he says.

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Tech Is Taking the Guess Work Out of Choosing Managers

Our process for selecting managers, our heightened expectations of them, and the outsized influence they can have on creating a toxic work environment might explain why so many workers feel they could do their jobs effectively without a supervisor. These trends are also inspiring some organizations to take a different approach to selecting and evaluating managers.

“We’re having these breakthroughs in big data and data analytics that allow you to get a more systematic and accurate sense of what traits a leader exhibits, and then take those traits into consideration when making performance decisions,” says Sull.

He explains that organizations have traditionally collected employee feedback about their managers, but the volume of data that’s generated from those reviews is often too overwhelming to utilize effectively.

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“Technologies like predictive modeling have made it easier to make sense of this treasure trove of data that most large organizations already have,” he says, adding that such tools could go a long way to restoring faith in managers. “I work in this field, so maybe I’m a little biased, but it’s very promising technology, and I’ve seen firsthand that it can be very impactful for making engagement decisions.”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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