Rethinking the manager's role: Focusing on employee career growth is more effective than focusing on employee engagement. Here's why...

Rethinking The Manager’s Role: Here’s How to Get Better Results

Sponsored by The Culture Platform

At some point in the last 20 years, companies started to believe employee engagement should define a manager’s role. And looking back, this conclusion made some sense. After all, managers are the organizational layer between leaders and people on teams. So why not embrace this as a framework for managerial effectiveness?

How The Engagement Expectation Began

The shift to engagement as the center of a manager’s role coincided with the arrival of tech-savvy millennials and the promise of HR software to power the so-called engagement revolution. It sounded good in theory. But it has largely been a failure.

Frankly, there is no evidence that investing in “managing” employee engagement actually works. Instead, research consistently points in the opposite direction. So let’s dig deeper for answers.

Throughout most of the industrial economy, managers weren’t very good at managing people. In fact, job turnover surveys typically found the #1 reason employees quit was “my manager.”

No wonder organizations decided to invest in technology to help. But what has that accomplished?

If you add up the revenue of engagement software and HR tech firms over the past 20 years, you’ll see customers spent perhaps $25 billion on these tools. Even so, the level of U.S. employee engagement remained mostly unchanged throughout this timeframe. It has consistently hovered around 32%, according to Gallup. Abysmal.

Why do we need to change what's wrong with a manager's role? 20-year U.S. employee engagement trends from Gallup

Rethinking the Manager’s Role

I believe this idea of managing engagement was flawed from the beginning. Flawed because managers actually manage people and their expectations about success. If every employee could perform at a top 10% level, get promoted, and work from home, engaging them in their work would be a breeze. But that’s not reality.

Today, when people leave a job, they usually don’t say their boss is the primary driver. Instead, they point to a desire for professional growth or career advancement. With this in mind, I would say managers have the most important role in any organization. So this is why I believe it’s time to rethink the manager’s role.

What if organizations actually embraced what employees want? And what if they empowered managers to help their people plan for professional growth and advancement?

Currently, most organizations don’t think this way. They culturally believe career planning is an individual employee’s responsibility.

I vehemently disagree with this conventional thinking. It’s really just an artifact from an era when employees could comfortably expect to spend their entire career at one or two companies.

For most managers, empowering employee career-building will require new attitudes and actions. Changing cultural norms and setting clear expectations isn’t an easy or intuitive process. This means managers will need a new framework or model for managing people that is different from today’s engagement-centric approach.

A New View of the Manager’s Role

I propose a new concept built for the modern manager-employee relationship. 

I call it goals with purpose.

Goals with purpose align an employee’s current job role with future career aspirations. This alignment is the key to creating an emotional connection between an individual and the work they’re performing as part of the team.

For managers, this is no doubt much more challenging than seeking engagement through a simple pulse survey or weekly poll. Those engagement tools are easy to use and they appeal to the mass market by design. However, they don’t address what matters most to employees.

The Power of Goals With Purpose

What does it mean to set goals with purpose? Through the research I’ve conducted at The Culture Platform and the listening I did at Cisco with hundreds of companies, I’ve processed this input and determined what constitutes a goal with purpose.

At its highest level, this kind of goal is the way an individual contributor on a team clearly sees how today’s job role aligns with future-minded growth opportunities.

Specifically, a goal with purpose has five attributes:

1. It is tangible
It aligns a job role in a measurable way with goals that matter to the organization’s success. An individual contributor should be able to “hold” this goal in their “hands.”

2. It shapes personal growth
It reflects the strengths of the person in that role. Experienced leaders know a job role should never play to someone’s weaknesses.

3. It demonstrates a pathway
It aligns a current role with a future role. The future role may even be outside the organization or team.

4. It helps people navigate the organization
It clarifies the position an individual plays on the team. This helps dispel politics and endless positioning.

5. It empowers a reputation
It enables people to communicate with facts about their accomplishments. Ideally, it provides a “signature” project to build an individual contributor’s credibility.

Managerial Success: A Call to Action for Leaders

A manager’s role has never been more important to organizational success. It has also never been harder to be a manager, given the pandemic, work-from-home disruption, the current era of business “efficiency,” and the unrelenting pace of change.

If managers have an organization’s most important job, leaders need to realize an employee’s emotional connection to the company is earned. They also need to recognize it is worth the effort.

Tapping into an individual’s intrinsic motivations is the key to inspiring discretionary effort — that magical relationship between an employee, their manager, and their company. It’s the sweet spot where going above-and-beyond is the way things work.

During Cisco’s heyday, we called these magical moments the “Cisco Save.” In other words, when we needed to accomplish something important, a group of people would step up and do whatever it took to get the job done.

As leaders and managers, we can make work more magical for our people. But engagement doesn’t make someone want to do “whatever it takes.” We finally know that now, after 20 years of trying. It’s time to try a better way. We need to make goals with purpose every manager’s priority and make career empowerment the new managerial normal.

What do goals with purpose mean to you? How could this approach help your organization move in the right direction? I look forward to seeing your comments and ideas.