Training Agenda, The Boss Makes the Weather

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, May 2004 Training can improve the work enviroment between managers and subordinates.

Do you like your boss? If not, you probably don’t like your job, either. The biggest factor in employee job satisfaction is one’s relationship with the boss, according to 43 percent of executives polled in a recent survey by Accountemps, a specialized staffing service in Menlo Park, Calif.

“A poor relationship with your manager can negatively impact outlook and performance and can increase stress and absenteeism,” says Susan Armstrong, faculty member at Canadian Management Centre, a training firm in Toronto, Ontario.

“For most employees, the immediate boss is the prime representative of the organization,” explains Terry Bragg, president of Peacemakers Training, a training firm in Murray, Utah. “If they don’t like their immediate boss, they don’t like the company.”

Improving employee satisfaction is particularly important for companies now as surveys show that many employees will look for other positions once the job market heats up again. In the March 2004 Hudson Employment Index, a monthly measure of work issues by New York-based professional staffing and outsourcing firm Hudson Global Resources, 55 percent of employees surveyed reported they would consider a job offer, and 29 percent reported they were looking for a different job.

“The best employees are the first ones to leave,” notes Reesa Staten, director of research for Accountemps. “When unemployment levels are low, companies do whatever they can to keep employees. When unemployment increases, companies stop thinking about retention. Then [the economy] turns around and there’s a rush to keep those people.”

The better course of action, Staten continues, is to “maintain strong management and a rewarding corporate culture all along and you miss that topsy-turvy environment.”

However, it appears few companies achieve that. In a poll by Maritz Inc., a St. Louis-based research firm, only “one out of five employees was satisfied with the way that the company’s management related to them,” says Rick Garlick, director of consulting and strategic implementation at Maritz.

But for the companies that achieve good management, the payoff can be big: Of those 21 percent who were satisfied with management, two out of three were interested in spending their entire career with the company, Maritz says.

If managers are the key to retaining good employees, then it is well worth a company’s time and resources to train managers in enhancing their relationships with direct reports.

“Companies spend millions in employee retention programs designed to make employees happy and inspire loyalty. These aren’t enough. Employees aren’t loyal to companies; they’re loyal to people,” says Armstrong.

The Elements

Ira Wolfe, president and founder of Success Performance Solutions, a consulting firm in Lancaster, Pa., explains that a good leader is “respected by team members and has a combination of interpersonal skills and the required core competencies.”

It is a common but dangerous assumption that people promoted to management come with the required people skills to do the job. “Many managers are promoted based on years of experience and technical skills. They find themselves in a role they are not prepared for,” says Sharon Collins, partner at Excelerated Learning Systems Inc., a consulting firm headquartered in Chicago.

To give your managers the right skills to motivate employees, you need to train them to do that. And to find out what motivates employees, you need to go to the source: Ask the employees, recommends Rodger Stotz, vice president and managing consultant at Maritz. “Say, ‘Here’s our vision and our values, what do you need from your manager to make that happen?’ Build a specific and appropriate business model of what managers need to provide for employees to be successful. Get employee feedback on the areas in which managers are strong and weak. Then the training becomes very specific in the areas employees feel need to be addressed,” he suggests.

Confidential exit interviews with employees also give a picture of recurring problems and identify managers who may need individual coaching.

Fundamentally, Armstrong says there are three basic requirements for effective workplace relationships: recognizing and accepting people’s individual behavioral differences, verbal and non-verbal communication, and conflict management. “These topics encourage an environment of respect and understanding, which builds trust and develops long-term employee relationships,” she adds.

Wolfe adds that training should cover communication skills, including asking open questions, active listening, giving clear instructions, conveying expectations, giving feedback and motivating employees.

In general, “supervisory training, whether it is for a foundry or a call center, teaches the same core skills. The situations may change, but those competencies can go across industries,” says Wolfe.

Charting the Course

Once HR identifies the curriculum needed for its managers—through current employee feedback, exit interviews and business goals—it needs to determine the best delivery method for its organization.

Often, improving manager-employee relationship skills is one component in larger management training programs. But, Staten cautions, “Make sure that management training goes well beyond legal and HR issues.” Don’t allow the interpersonal management module to get lost among other initiatives.

With the plethora of training delivery options available, sometimes it’s difficult to choose among classroom, online and videoconference options. In this case, though, experts agree: To learn how to interact with people, you need to interact with people.

“Face-to-face management training should occur at least once a year, ideally twice or more. A one- or two-day session is most practical, with plenty of follow-up support,” says Alicia Doyle, vice president of HR at Hudson North America in New York.

At Clean Burn Inc., a manufacturing company in Leola, Pa., supervisors attend three half-day sessions that will occur annually. “We’ve had a lot of positive comments [about the first training session],” says Dave Wolf, president and CEO of Clean Burn. “One supervisor said he hadn’t been delegating well. The class taught him to encourage his people to take responsibility and for him to let go. Another manager said he hadn’t been giving praise for jobs well done and that he was going to start giving people more encouragement.”

Bragg recommends that HR professionals look at the goal of improving supervisor-employee relationships as an ongoing process, rather than as a one-time event. “Many organizations think they are going to send someone to a one-day seminar and they will learn everything they need. It’s not that easy,” he says. “It takes 21 to 30 days to change a behavior, attitude or thought process. You need to have reinforcement and time to apply the skills.”

Wolfe agrees. “The ideal is half a day—four hours—once a month for 12 months. We teach a new skill and then the managers can go back to the workforce and apply it. We are able to discuss it at the next session.”

Cost depends on factors such as the number of managers trained and whether HR uses off-the-shelf or customized courseware. A ballpark figure is $125 to $375 per employee per classroom hour. “Hudson spent approximately $65,000 to provide performance management training to 80 supervisors last year, excluding the costs of our internal content developer and in-person facilitator,” says Doyle.

Citing external and internal data on manager-related turnover can help build the business case for this type of training. “Cost is always an objection. You have to demonstrate the money lost through turnover and the higher productivity resulting from training,” says Staten. “Demonstrate to senior management through numbers that this will have a real impact on the success of the business.”

Because manager-employee relations also affect morale, another business case for providing such training is to improve customer service.

Garlick explains that at a large hotel where he worked as a consultant, if a guest questioned the validity of a bill charge, the front-desk employees were told to defend the charge no matter what. Often the guest would then ask to speak to a manager who would override the charge. The front-desk employee would come away feeling embarrassed and unempowered. This did not foster good manager-employee relations.

“When I brought this up, the company said, ‘We want good cop, bad cop.’ This contradicted the company’s best interests and created dissatisfaction among guests and employees. I told them to change their model to empower employees to remove charges without having to consult a manager,” says Garlick. “Empowering employees was one of a number of key improvements in manager-staff relations that ultimately resulted in much higher guest satisfaction,” says Garlick. “The hotel’s guest satisfaction scores went from being near the bottom to being one of the best rated in the chain within a few months.”

Strong manager-employee relations are the cornerstone of a strong company. When companies encourage and train managers to communicate well with their employees, the employees communicate well with customers. When customers are happy, the company thrives.

The Climate

For manager-employee relationship training to take root and flourish, it must be planted in the right environment. While it is true that employees leave managers, not companies, if the manager is not supported by the company, it can undermine his effectiveness.

In addition to providing ongoing manager training, Bragg recommends that HR “look at the systems within the company that drive behavior. You can train a manager to develop his interpersonal skills, but if he has to function within an organizational culture that doesn’t support those skills, it won’t work.

“Let’s say I work for a company that verbally emphasizes working together as teams, but they promote lone rangers,” Bragg explains. “If you worked as a team member, you didn’t get the promotion. Those that rose in the organization were strong, obnoxious personalities that got results, regardless of the number of people they ticked off. The verbal culture said, ‘You need to develop your people skills’ but then rewarded people who didn’t use those skills.”

It’s important to remind managers what a crucial role they have in the organization and to appreciate their efforts. “It’s easy to forget about managing relationships with others, wrongly assuming that they will take care of themselves,” says Armstrong. “We get so focused on our own job that we often forget about those reporting to us.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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