It’s excellent managers – not pay, benefits, perks or a charismatic leader – that are critical to building a strong, high performing workplace.   Great managers are not only catalysts and translators, they consistently break the rules of conventional wisdom!

Despite the hundreds of thousands of books on the subject, nobody really knows what being a good manager is any more, and the flat-structure and re-engineering brigades don’t seem to care.  Conventional wisdom tells us that the role of manager is no longer very important.  Conventional wisdom promotes self-reliant, self-motivated teams, and says every ‘manager’ should be a ‘leader’.

How Would You Measure Up?
In a major piece of research to discover the keys to creating a workplace that can attract, focus and keep the most talented employees, two of the senior researchers in the Gallup Organisation, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman set about analysing 25 years of data.  They had exclusive access to 100 million questions and answers from employee surveys and used quite sophisticated statistics to isolate the 12 questions that measure the strength of a high performing workplace.  

As part of the research they only kept questions that consistently got high scores where there was also clear evidence of higher performance measures like productivity, profitability, staff retention rates and customer satisfaction rates.  They designed and filtered the questions so that they could identify where high scores matched high performing teams.  For example, each question was answered using a scale of 1-5 where “1” is strongly disagree and “5” is strongly agree.  A question where everyone always answered strongly agree irrespective of performance was deemed a weak question and discarded.

Once they had the questions, they tested and verified them across 25,000 business units with an average of 42 staff in each, using focus groups and 105,000 employees taking part.  They were then able to compare how the answers people gave were directly linked to performance. 

The 12 questions they ended up with are:
1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the last seven days have I received recognition or praise for good work?
5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7. At work, does my opinion seem to count?
8. Does the mission or purpose of my company make me feel like my work is important?
9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
10. Do I have a best friend at work?
11. In the last six months I have had a talk with someone about my progress?
12. This last year have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

It is an interesting exercise to consider how your people would answer the questions above and what you and your managers are doing to ensure that they would score higher.

How aware are you about what your people really think about their work and their managers and your business?  I mentioned in a previous article that a recent study concluded that 61% of UK employees arrive at work each morning feeling somewhere between indifference and serious disengagement to their working environment.  What is the percentage in your team or business?   How is that affecting productivity and even profitability?  Who is taking responsibility for it?

Ignoring Conventional Wisdom
The Gallup researchers didn’t stop with the employee questions, they also interviewed the managers who were working in the highest performing business units to explore what they had in common, and contrasted them with managers in business units with average performance.

What they found was that the great managers had very little in common.  They used vastly different styles and differed in sex, race and age.  They focused on different goals and valued different things.  But what they did have in common was the fact that they ignored conventional wisdom. 

In their book about the findings of their research “First Break All The Rules” Buckingham and Coffman state conventional wisdom is encouraging you to:
1. Select a person . . . based on experience, intelligence and determination.
2. Set expectations . . . by defining the right steps.
3. Motivate the person . . . by helping them identify and overcome their weaknesses.
4. Develop the person . . . by helping them learn and get promoted.

There are thousands of books, management gurus and academic courses that provide infinite detail about how to do each of the above and while on the surface it is good advice, the Gallup research shows that great managers have a mindset and insight that separates them from the rest.  Tens of thousands of the great managers interviewed by the researchers echoed the following:
People don’t change that much.
Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
Try to draw out what was left in.
That is hard enough. 

Great managers see themselves as catalysts and translators.  As you probably know a catalyst speeds up the reaction between two substances to create a desired end product or result.  Great managers create high performance by speeding up the reaction between the employee’s natural talents and motivation and the business’s goals, and between the employee’s natural talents and motivation and the customers’ needs.

Great managers can translate the goals of the business into meaningful and engaging priorities that play to people’s strengths.  They can translate the fundamental needs of customers into specific standards and communicate them consistently to their teams.  They can also effectively translate the needs of employees to Directors in order to get the resources required to achieve results.

Buckingham and Coffman go on to say that if you apply the insight of great managers to their core activities you get the following:
• When selecting someone, select for talent . . . not simply for experience, intelligence, or determination.
• When setting expectations, define the right outcomes . . . not the right steps.
• When motivating someone focus on strengths and individual motivational preferences . . . not weaknesses.
• When developing someone, help them find the right fit . . . not simply the next rung on the ladder.

Getting Under The Surface
The key to all of the above is recognising people’s natural talents, strengths and above all motivational preferences, and then identifying the roles that they will flourish in.  Some people are naturally better at this than others and all the great managers interviewed in the study by Buckingham and Coffman had developed this ability in one form or another.

So I invite you to think about what you are currently doing and how it compares to the insights above.  Are you following the conventional wisdom, or are you already breaking the rules like the great managers that the Gallup research discovered?  How are you getting under the surface of what really motivates your people?

There is now a very cost effective way to discover the below-conscious motivation and behaviour patterns of your team.  This can give you a shortcut to identifying the sorts of work they would be most suited to, and you can even use it to identify the motivational and behavioural characteristics of new job candidates and how well they will fit the role and the team that you need them to work in.

If you would like more information about how we approach these issues click here.

In the meantime if you want to discuss any of the issues or questions mentioned above, just leave a comment in the box below.

Remember  . . . Stay curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
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If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop David a line at
[email protected].