Q&A: Why managers feel invisible, and are heading for the exits

Work cultures are becoming enlightened, but…

Mangers leaving This past decade, the workforce has been permeated with thoughts and actions around employee retention, engagement and inclusion. Work cultures are becoming enlightened, and employees are seeing the benefits of leaders’ efforts to make them feel comfortable and motivated in the workplace.

Well, not all employees, a new survey says. Organizations have an enormous and very risky blind spot when it comes to caring for the people who are arguably the glue holding them together: their managers, the Oct. 2019 study found, and an alarming 1 in 2 managers are considering heading for the exits. The survey was conducted by TalentLMS and author and Harvard University instructor Dr. Ashley Prisant, who teaches business, leadership and human resources courses at Harvard Extension School.

Among other stunning findings in their report, which surveyed 500 U.S. managers with a maximum of 10 years’ experience:

  • 42% clearly say they felt happier at work before they became managers
  • 43% say they feel isolated at work after they got a managerial position
  • 74% of managers who said their firms take less care of them now have been managers for more than 3 years

We asked Prisant about this cloak of invisibility around managers and the risks it poses. Here’s what she had to say:

CultureIQ: Your report seems to show that managers are often missed when it comes to retention and recognition efforts — why do you think firms have this blind spot?

Dr. Ashley Prisant
Dr. Ashley Prisant, on keeping managers happy: “Listen. And if you listen, give feedback.”

Prisant: I think some managers, especially good ones, can easily be taken advantage as the middle workers. They carry out the plan and get it done, but the senior leaders have many competing priorities, and it can be difficult to remember the very ones that are taking care of the tactical work they are planning.

Can you offer a tip or two on how to eliminate these blind spots?

Each leader, regardless of the level of the organization they are in, should find out what recognition/reward/motivation managers or individuals that work for them–desire most. Some want public recognition, some just a pat on the back. Some want to be sent to training, and others want to be pushed hard so they can get promoted. It doesn’t take as long as you think–you typically just have to put forth the effort.

What are the risks to a company in terms of overall employee satisfaction when large numbers of managers don’t feel satisfied – particularly – as your study showed—the ones who are more experienced?

A variety of areas can be affected, but the more obvious ones are motivation and engagement. Also, trust is a big factor. If senior leaders are more “do as I say not as I do,” then trust will be lost, and further reduce motivation, engagement and productivity.

Are you meaning to say that if managers are trying to motivate employees when they themselves aren’t motivated, then employees will see through that and see it as a trust issue?

Yes, that would definitely be the case, because the follower managers would see right through it. But this is more of “go lead your people, be inspirational and get them to, say, work 50+ hours” –when they themselves aren’t doing it. It’s hard to follow someone who appears to be talking out of both sides of their mouth!

Do you think it’s harder or easier to get managers to speak up about workplace issues vs rank-and-file employees? If it’s harder, are there ways companies can encourage managers to express their concerns more safely/openly?

I think it generally depends on the culture. Managers need to know they are not going to be given the stick if they do something wrong (the first time). That it’s ok to make a mistake, or admit to a problem they don’t know how to solve, and work together for a solution.

Are there any interesting demographic differences in the survey data?

One area in which there’s never really any different data but most people think there would be is generational/age differences. Rarely do specific differences come up in motivation/ engagement. People of all ages tend to want the same thing.

Based on your data, what are the most important cultural elements a company should create to keep managers motivated and happy?

Listen to them. And if you listen, give feedback. If you say you’re going to do something…DO IT. Build trust. You can do this but still hold managers accountable. Trust but verify. There’s a good book called “Three Signs of a Miserable Job” –the 3 signs are immeasurability, irrelevance and anonymity. If you chose NOT to do those things, then people will be more motivated to do what’s best for you and your company.

Ashley Prisant spent five years in operations and finance, creating and managing the rapid-fire growth of Amazon.com. She has scaled large groups (over 1000 people in one week) and processes ($100K’s saved in months). She has been running her own consulting firm, Square Peg Solutions, focused on business & leadership optimization since 2015. Prior to Amazon, she was a Naval Officer and served in national and international assignments. Her book, “ Go Beyond the Job Description” can be found on Amazon.