It’s no secret the pandemic brought unprecedented upheaval to the American workforce.
Overnight, many of us had to learn to work from home or take significant precautions at work. Over the first few weeks, thousands lost jobs.
The pandemic shocked us out of our routines and gave us a chance to see our work, jobs, and lives with a fresh perspective. The result was an exodus from jobs of all kinds. Some people decided not to return to the workforce for personal reasons. Others changed companies, or even professions.
As millions of people quit their jobs in the first half of 2021, employers scrambled. Signing bonuses, wage increases, and flexible work options suddenly became the norm at many companies.
And while all of that is good for employees, there is still a big elephant in the room, and neither bonuses nor pay increases will get rid of it: terrible managers, at all levels of American companies.
While it might be convenient to blame the pandemic for all this turmoil, we must ask ourselves two questions:
1. Would someone who felt valued and respected, who did rewarding work and was recognized for their performance, who respected their manager, their co-workers and their company, leave their job? A few might, for family or health reasons, but millions in just a few weeks?
2. Why has working from home become so attractive, even necessary? Is it just the commute? Or have many workplaces become so oppressive and toxic that employees dread going back?
The pandemic did not suddenly send millions of employees running for the door. Managers did.
Bad managers have created and tolerated unpleasant company cultures over the course of decades. The pandemic simply put a spotlight on it and revealed options for those who were tired of suffering.
Employees saw clearly whether their managers valued their physical safety and their mental health. They discovered whether the company prized process over performance, whether managers were nimble enough to adapt or mired in unproductive tradition and habit.
Employers had a chance to demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They were handed an unprecedented opportunity to support what they often call their greatest asset: their workforce. Managers who did weren’t coddling employees, they were maintaining productivity and retaining their best people. Managers who fell short did so in full view of current and prospective employees.
And perhaps for the first time, some leaders realized they have a problem. The problem, and therefore its solution, lies in the way we identify, hire, train and evaluate managers.
Good managers are selfless. They put the needs of their teams first and prioritize the business and their employees over their own egos. They understand the importance of recognition and reward and are good communicators.
But too often, manager candidates are successful self-promoters with good-looking resumes and interview well. They’re good at polishing resumes and talking about themselves but lack the skills necessary to manage people well. Too many self-centered bullies, and sycophants sail through the interview process, then suddenly find themselves in charge of a team.
And while their companies will train them in avoiding harassment, what they can and can’t ask during job interviews, and other risk-avoidance topics, virtually none of them will be taught how to manage people.
But no matter how lousy they are as managers, they are usually safe. Most companies don’t have a way of identifying bad managers, nor a process to train or fire them. And in many cases, their managers (and their managers, and their managers, all the way up to the CEO) are not much better.
Inept managers create distracted, unproductive workplaces and leave employees feeling unappreciated and angry. And so, when they can, employees leave.
The only way to turn this around is to improve the way we recruit, hire, train and evaluate managers.
Start by understanding what good managers look like. Know the qualities and characteristics of good managers. How can you be sure you’re hiring someone who will nurture and reward their teams? What character traits should you look for? What questions can you ask in interviews and reference checks to be certain?
Then develop training and mentoring programs for managers (and not just the new ones) that teach them about people management: the importance of empathy, the value of verbal rewards, effective communication techniques, and how and why to create safe, discrimination-free workplaces.
Next, figure out how to evaluate your managers. Employee surveys aren’t enough because employees with lousy managers won’t trust the company to maintain confidentiality. You’re going to have to find other ways to get the truth about the quality of your managers.
Then be prepared to act on your findings. Have a process in place to reform poor managers, and to remove them if that fails.
It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But you’re finally escorting the elephant out, undoing decades of damage, and helping your company compete in the post-pandemic, thoroughly transparent world.