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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Makes Workplaces Miserable

recent congressional hearing caught my attention. It focused on the subject of miserable employees -- more specifically, the record-low engagement of employees in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

DHS was advised to spend time and money “training” managers and supervisors. The problem, the agencies were told, stems from poor work-life balance, benefits, pay freezes -- that sort of thing.

This is completely misguided. I can identify a root cause of the problem, just from knowing Gallup’s decades of research on management: About 60% of employees we’ve studied in government organizations tell us they don’t clearly know what’s expected of them at work. That is a much bigger problem than pay, benefits, and vacation days. In fact, what neither Congress nor the federal government knows is that the more you aim solutions at those aspects, the worse you make the workplace.

Huge workforces, like Wells Fargo (roughly 300,000 employees), have highly inspired workplaces with fewer benefits, vacation time, etc., than the typical federal agency. They have highly engaged employees who have fun at work serving customers. What’s so different?

DHS employees aren’t miserable for the reasons Congress heard. They’re miserable because -- unlike the employees at Wells Fargo -- they have lousy managers and supervisors. Yes, lousy managers, not lousy benefits, create miserable workplaces. And lousy managers tend to create lousy, miserable employees.

Gallup researchers discovered there actually is a silver bullet: Just name the right manager. Gallup’s big breakthrough discovery is that absolutely nothing fixes the problems caused by a manager who has no talent for the task at hand. Solutions come when employers understand that the art of supervising and managing in the new millennium is closer to being a coach than to being a boss.

To predict an employee’s engagement, the single most important question you can ask is, “Does your manager care about your development?” When and if you nail that one, it fixes compensation, benefits, and work-life balance -- and misery magically disappears.

Until employers take the testing and selection of managers and supervisors seriously -- promoting those who can honestly develop people -- they will continue to build factories of disengaged, miserable employees, as the federal government has at DHS.


Anonymous said...
April 19, 2012 at 5:57 AM  

The author's counter to the congressional hearings accurately reflects the trend in Gallup surveys but does not present a sound argument. This is because he presents not facts that negate the testimony about DHS, but rather an anchoring bias to Gallup's broader trends. Rather than saying that "DHS employees aren't miserable for the reasons Congress heard" (a claim that he cannot support with facts), he could have made a sound argument by saying "Judging from broader global trends, DHS employees probably are miserable for reasons other than those Congress heard."

Tony Gowland said...
April 19, 2012 at 8:28 AM  

Being in the UK I have to admit it's mildly heartening to be assured that our cousins over the pond suffer the same issues on a similar scale.

I'd be interested in your opinion as to how long you would expect it to take to elevate the culture to that of Wells Fargo if DHS had a capable CEO starting, say tomorrow?

I hope the company you order the silver bullets from has the considerable production capacity necessary!

Stephen Booth said...
April 23, 2012 at 8:08 AM  

I'd be very wary of the blanket statement that getting managers who develop staff will make issues around compensation, benefits and work-life balance disappear. Ninety, ninety five or even ninety nine percent of the time it probably will, but you've got to allow for the 10/5/1% of times it doesn't else you'll find yourself just flogging a different dead horse.

Jeff Reich said...
April 27, 2012 at 10:27 AM  

Jim, I could not agree more. Furthermore, my observations in these financially challenging times is that many managers are even purposefully restricting development of better subordinates.

As executives have been busy trying to pump their business to external parties, they have often left mid-level management to cut staff and budgets. Complicate this further by considering the state of human resources. Generalists are often spread so thinly that mid-level management is run amuck. Many of these managers will withhold development of high-potential subordinates, or even choose them to be the ones laid off. These managers do this as a self preservationist move. In the meantime, what is the message to the remaining employees?

Brian Ward said...
April 27, 2012 at 11:04 AM  

Bingo! Right on the button. I think it was Jack Welch who said "Before you become a Manager, your focus is on your own development. After you become a Manager, your focus should be on developing others"

I know from my own experience, I grew exponentially working for Managers who focused on my development and who then held me accountable. Managers need to be held accountable for developing others, and it has to start at the top.

Anonymous said...
April 27, 2012 at 12:12 PM  

Maybe the DHS managers would be happier and thus more involved with their employees if they weren't constantly insulted... or maybe they don't feel worthwhile because they aren't paid as much as Wells Fargo managers.

Anonymous said...
April 27, 2012 at 3:50 PM  

That it my question Tony. How do you produce, find,select and train an excellent manager? Which college programs are really adapted to bringing out the best in potentially great managers? The two colleges I have been to have focused on craming knowledge into one's mind and the general idea is the more knowlege you have, the more qualified you are for a management position. I found that I learned more about management by volunteering for a tutoring program for high school kids who need someone to be there for them and encourage their development than by getting a degree.

Louis House said...
April 30, 2012 at 8:33 AM  

Excellent insight Jim, thank you! Spot on. I have run across this many times, and it all comes down to being valued and having "the company" and more directly, those immediately above you care and demonstrate interest and appreciation or at the very least acknowledge competencies.

Ken F. said...
May 1, 2012 at 11:52 PM  

This article may be accurate for a federal bureaucracy like DHS, but doesn't seem to translate very well to local government agencies that have closer association with the elected officials and their top level appointees (e.g. City Manager) to whom they answer. If these choose to be bosses rather than coaches, as most do, there probably isn't much chance of first level managers having any significant effect on employee engagement even if they try.

And then there is the local government HR department that apparently has as its sole responsibility the throttling of any signs of engagement or initiative. But that's another topic for another study.

Anonymous said...
May 14, 2012 at 10:43 AM  

Comparisons between the private sector and government service need to take into account how much power management has over the budget. There is much more autonomy in the private sector on where the money is spent. The politics of budget in a large government organization is almost crippling. There aren't as many cooks in the kitchen for a private sector organization, so changes in direction are easier to make because you can decide to put aside money to do it.

Chuck Wall said...
July 16, 2012 at 1:38 PM  

I loved this posting and the author couldn't be more spot on. I recently completed a nine month leadership program for the federal government called Executive Leadership Program. It was made up of 155 GS12-13 from all across the federal government. I learned a tremendous amount about myself as a leader and what it means to be a leader. Only to come back to miserable work environment where the supervisors care absolutely nothing about who you are, what you do, how you feel. They only care about saving their own skin. Turnover in our workplace is extremely high yet senior management still doesn't seem to be able to see the picture. Middle and senior managers in the government need a lot more training and education and experience. I'm not sure if this is still a generation problem or simply a cultural problem within my organization either way the grass seems to be a better shade of green in other places.

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