Ever Wonder Why Your Message Doesn’t Make It To The Front-Line Employee?

A lot of terrific ideas fail at execution. Maybe they didn’t get the message?

In over 25 years, Carpedia has completed more than ten thousand studies of front-line managers. Each study involves experiencing one full workday as it unfolds. The intent of these studies is to identify, assess and categorize the time managers spend “actively managing.”  We do this because front-line managers typically control 90% of the assets of an organization and about 75% of the human resource.  We know that active management gets results, and it gets your message out.  If you can’t get employees’ attention then your message isn’t likely getting where you need it to be, and that can be costly.

The result of our studies can be summarized into three predictable themes:

  1. Front-line managers spend an insignificant amount of time planning, therefore
  2. They often do not know what measurable performance is expected of their area, therefore
  3. They do not communicate expectations, minimizing the impact of follow up

We know that increasing active management, in particular planning and communication, is critical for sustained results and for engaged employees. While there are subtle differences by function and business type, the punchline remains the same: A typical manager spends approximately seven (7!) seconds per employee per day actively communicating or following up on the plan – about the amount of time it took you to read this last sentence.

Most managers have a difficult time accepting the reality that they spend so little time truly actively managing but there’s a good reason.  They don’t have an understanding of active management and most importantly, they don’t have a plan.  What they think is “active” is usually process stewardship or fire-fighting.  This is not all bad, except that they tend to manage the process in real time or in the past.  What happened yesterday has more weight in most organizations than what is going to happen tomorrow.  Ask a manager what happened yesterday and they will have a much more robust answer than what is going to happen today or tomorrow.  Without a plan, managers are managing the process as it unfolds, or worse – trying to explain and fix what happened yesterday.  And this is why active management is so rare.

We also make planning difficult

Businesses are extraordinarily complex planning machines.  In our experience, financial planning is the most robust that we see, followed by spotty sales and operations planning, and reasonably good scheduling at the front-line.  They are never perfect, but some are better than others.  Any mistakes in the planning assumptions, or anomalous operating issues that create planning issues inevitably show up at the point of execution, where the front-line manager lives.  The more we feed bad planning to them, the more often the schedule changes.  The more often the schedule changes, the less likely managers are to plan.

We change the schedule so much that we prevent front-line managers from planning effectively, or even planning at all.

We rarely promote employees because they are good managers

It’s hard to find good data on the unfiltered, brutally honest reasons people are promoted to manager. The general consensus is that managers were either good employees or had been in the position long enough that their tenure was enough to “give them a shot.”  This in no way reflects the reputable material available through research on why we should promote people to manager, but in real life the pragmatic decisions often trump the educated ones.  Gallup suggests that one in ten people are natural managers so we don’t get it wrong all the time.

In both cases the average employee who is promoted to manager is typically an expert at doing.  An expert at their craft. An expert in “working the system” and an expert in fire-fighting.  Unfortunately, these very valuable skills have little to do with the process of managing, planning or engaging people.

We struggle to exhibit well known traits of effective management

Individually, most of us have at one point in time or another had a person, typically of authority, make a positive impact on our lives.  During our engagements, we discuss the attributes of that person with our client’s managers.  We have concluded that most people intrinsically know what traits are required to be a good manager.  The list is the nearly identical in every group we encounter whether that group is educated or not, junior or senior, high tech or low tech, service or industrial.  Most common attributes include being a great listener, communicator, and having patience, trust, high expectations and empathy.

So while we know the attributes of a good manager, mentor and leader, we don’t necessarily know how to exhibit those attributes at work to as many employees as possible.  We have observed that a good start is to practice active management; to plan, communicate and to follow-up with people in a manner that engages them in their life at work.  It should be no wonder then, that most employees are not engaged at work.  Most businesses have not settled on what is considered good management, nor are there development programs to get there. We simply don’t give managers the skills required to do their job.

Creating an engaging environment requires humility and trust

It’s not enough to be a good planner or  communicator.  A manager needs to develop an environment based on humility and trust.  In practice, most environments do not encourage honesty, humility or acceptance, they encourage accountability.  Honesty, humility and acceptance give employees and managers an opportunity to admit mistakes, share concerns and generally get better.  Nay sayers complain that this approach is weak, ignoring the fact that it takes incredible courage to admit a mistake, to accept one’s shortcomings or to accept someone else’s differences.  Environments that foster this kind of courage tend to find a collective and individual accountability that cannot be replaced with brute force.

Environments that forgo the former and preach “accountability first” breed excuses, finger pointing, and distrust.  There are millions of front-line managers out there and a very small percentage of them are in environments that are conducive to effective management.  It should be no wonder that they fail to plan and communicate effectively as we don’t provide the environment to do so.

What can be done?

For any business that is serious about getting their message to the front line, the challenge is massive, but pays off.  Start with this:

  • Create an environment built upon trust
  • Create a manager development program
  • Only promote employees with the skillsets to be an effective manager
  • Provide clarity of expectations through effective planning