The standard corporate climate is a drag. Leaders increasingly say they feel burned out and workers say their managers are ineffective. Dominic Ashley-Timms, CEO of Notion, a performance consultancy, has an idea why: Managers are focused on putting out fires rather than empowering those they lead.
Editor’s note: The author of this article, Dominic Ashley-Timms, is CEO of performance consultancy Notion, which offers management development programs.
In the dynamic landscape of the modern workplace, the traditional model of management is showing signs of strain with reported rates of burnout at an all-time high. Against this backdrop, data indicates that only a small percentage of managers receive formal management training, and even fewer possess any management qualifications in the first place.
As leaders grapple with increasing pressures, the rise of remote work and increasing rates of employee churn, it’s clear that a paradigm shift is needed.
The broken landscape
Recent studies highlight a concerning reality: Only a fraction of managers receive the necessary training to excel in their roles. According to the Chartered Management Institute’s recent Better Management Report, 82% of managers have not had any formal management and leadership training, and only half of the 18% who do receive any training go on to accomplish an associated qualification.
This underscores a critical gap in preparing leaders for the complexities of their people-related responsibilities, which is having a knock-on effect on organizational retention — 50% of employees who find their managers ineffective are planning to leave in the next 12 months. People are voting with their feet, with staff more likely to jump ship and find new employment in cultures where they feel supported and valued by their managers.
This is perhaps not surprising, as the role of a manager has become increasingly demanding, with multifaceted challenges spanning team dynamics, organizational goals and individual performance. The pressure cooker of responsibilities often leads managers to fall back into the more familiar and functional aspects of their roles, perhaps even retaining aspects of their previous roles that give them certainty, willingly stepping in to fix and solve problems employees bring to them, instead of helping staff find the solutions themselves. Not only is this causing a tidal wave of stress and burnout for managers, but by constantly stepping into the problems brought to them, managers are robbing their charges of an opportunity to develop their own resourcefulness and independent problem-solving skills, stunting their personal development.
As managers continue to measure a good day’s work by the number of items they’re able to cross off their interminable to-do list, the volume of tasks and the pressure they’re under means that conversations they should be having with team members get pushed further down the list until those tasks themselves become problems to be dealt with. And with increasing numbers of managers finding that they can work from home, the diminishing opportunities for real connections with team members are only adding to this management malaise.
The urgent need for mindset change
In its 2023 State of the Global Workforce report, Gallup concluded: “… low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion. That’s 9% of global GDP — enough to make the difference between success and a failure for humanity. Poor management leads to lost customers and lost profits, but it also leads to miserable lives.”
Against this backdrop we should conclude that our typically poor management approaches are contributing to widespread disengagement, hindering organizational success. Leaders must recognize the urgent need for change to foster a more engaged and motivated workforce.
To address the broken state of management, a fundamental mindset change is imperative. In almost every walk of professional life, from cutting hair to fixing boilers to driving a cab, a qualification or certification is needed. Organizations everywhere attest volubly to the fact that “our people are our most important resource,” yet do nothing to certify the competency of their line managers, and, ill-prepared and ill-qualified, let them loose to manage teams of their people.
If people are indeed their most important asset, then in C-suites and boardrooms across the world, the question they should be addressing is “What do we want our embedded layers of management to be doing for us, and how must we equip them with the behaviors and skills to do that?”
How can we fix the management landscape? The answer, it turns out, is for managers to ask more powerful questions. And for that, they need to adopt an inquiry-led approach.
By helping managers learn when and how to ask more insightful questions in situations that offer the potential for a better outcome (instead of directing the outcome itself), managers begin to favor the use of more of an inquiry-led approach. When a team member comes to you with a problem, for example, rather than adopting the traditional command-and-control approach of telling, or providing a list of solutions, a well-intentioned question designed to stimulate the other person’s own thinking might well lead to a better idea or action. This means that accountability for resolving the problem remains with the person who brought it to you.
Learning to ask more powerful questions enables team members to share accountability for the manager’s workload. By inviting them to identify and take action for themselves to begin to solve the problems they’re faced with, managers can begin to build confidence levels within their team. Enabling others in this way is an important precursor to empowering team members more widely, helping them develop agency and the confidence to follow through. Effective delegation can only happen once employees are enabled and empowered to operate, which creates a culture of shared responsibility. As confidence builds further, managers are then able to cede particular activities from their workload (that shouldn’t sit with them in the first place) distributing work more equitably across the team, in turn stimulating the advancement of individuals as they step up to take on those activities. This not only enhances a sense of ownership and fulfillment amongst team members but also improves productivity.
Current research and survey data speak volumes about the broken state of management, but within these challenges lies an opportunity for transformation. Leaders have the power to fix the broken system by embracing an intentional, inquiry-led management style that can facilitate better communication and collaboration and instill a sense of purpose and connection among team members.