Performance management is undergoing a fundamental reprioritization from individual contributors to being a collective effort. HR leaders increasingly recognize that great performance requires a community — and that direct managers are key players.
Historically, there’s been little focus on understanding what it takes to be a good manager. For decades, organizations have promoted employees into management roles for being high performers. But just because someone’s good at their job doesn’t mean they’ll be a good people leader — at least, not without the proper training. And while some organizations do offer training and coaching to help new managers, there’s often no follow-through to ensure accountability.
Without a thorough approach, HR leaders will be left scratching their heads when evaluating manager effectiveness. Here’s my advice for understanding what makes a manager effective and how to develop accountability in your organization.
Listen to what your workforce is saying
The definition of manager effectiveness will vary by organization. Listen to what your people tell you about what they need from management. Use surveys to identify trends that can lead to data-driven insights into performance.
For employees who are being onboarded or have a new role, consider these questions:
- What are the ways you learn best? Do you feel you absorb more information quickly by being hands-on, doing self-study, watching others in action and listening, etc.
- In what environments or working styles do you feel the most productive?
- How do you like to be communicated with, one that allows you to feel understood and helps you to feel more clear about what is being shared with you?
- What management style allows you to perform at your best?
Consider these questions for current employees:
- What environment helps you thrive and grow?
- What management factors help you be more effective?
- What gets you the most excited about working with your manager?
- What’s frustrating about working with your manager?
- If you could change one thing about management to make your job better, what would that be?
- How often do you meet with your manager to discuss your development and ways to increase your impact at work?
Assess this data to discover what management-related factors impact overall performance most. You may learn, for instance, that managers who have frequent conversations with their reports lead more satisfied, higher-performing teams.
The data you collect from workforce surveys will help you make an effective case to your peers in leadership about why manager effectiveness matters. Illustrate the opportunity cost of not taking action. For example, it’s easy to get swept up in the busyness of daily work. But in a culture where the focus is on the bottom line and getting the work done, we can completely miss the boat on understanding how we develop people to get the work done better.
Use your manager effectiveness data to demonstrate that when managers lead in certain ways, they elevate their whole team. Outside research backs this up, too: Betterworks’ 2023 State of Performance Enablement report found that when managers have effective coaching and development conversations with their reports, 81% of team members are very productive, and 73% are always engaged. Compare that to outcomes when team members don’t find manager conversations effective: only 55% are very productive, and only 48% are always engaged.
With such data, you can begin to build a comprehensive training program to instill leadership behaviors into existing and upcoming managers. And, once you know what qualities and behaviors make managers most effective, you can retool your leadership succession planning program to identify high-potential management candidates who display those behaviors.
Identify metrics for evaluating manager effectiveness
Your data will help you consider what you need most from managers — and how you’ll measure it. While optimal manager effectiveness will vary by organization, there are a few key factors by which to assess managers:
- Their ability to drive business impact: This might manifest in how managers communicate priorities and help employees set personal goals aligned to company priorities. Managers create impact when they set clear performance expectations and support their teams as they achieve them.
- Their ability to lead and develop people: The most effective managers facilitate continuous employee growth. They have frequent conversations regarding career ambitions and help employees achieve new skills in their current roles.
- Their ability to cultivate culture: Great managers drive a healthy culture by encouraging open communication and collaboration. They role model healthy, values-driven behaviors and promote team inclusivity.
Traditional performance feedback generally flows from the top down, with direct managers assessing their reports. However, the manager’s supervisor isn’t always the most qualified person to evaluate their effectiveness as a manager. For that, you need to consult their direct reports. Develop a system team members can use to rate their managers. Here at Betterworks, for example, we’ve developed the BEST framework for assessing manager effectiveness. The framework poses simple questions to team members to assess how well their manager:
- Builds trust and connection
- Empowers curiosity and innovation
- Shows interest and support
- Teaches them how to perform better and take greater ownership of their work
With clear criteria for what makes a manager effective, you can put processes in place for capturing manager effectiveness data in the flow of work, so that it is seamless and organic. Instead of creating isolated evaluation processes that are disruptive, the application of the BEST framework allows you to assess manager effectiveness as part of a simple, ongoing process.
- Builds trust and connection: You can measure the frequency and consistency of managers’ check-ins or conversations with their direct reports.
- Empowers curiosity and innovation: You can assess this through the number of stretch goals a direct report has and via upward feedback that rates employee sentiment on whether employees feel their manager encourages them to collaborate and think creatively.
- Shows interest and support: HR can measure employee engagement scores and upward feedback sentiment about how employees feel supported and whether their manager prioritizes their well-being.
- Teaches them how to perform better and take greater ownership over their work: You can evaluate this by seeing if the manager provides regular and real-time feedback and coaching and communicates priorities as they change.
Make manager effectiveness matter
Lasting change requires leadership accountability. There needs to be a flow of accountability from manager to direct report, all the way down the org chart. If nobody holds the manager accountable, then why would the manager care to hold their direct reports accountable?
This can sound very prescriptive, but a system of accountability is simply a lever that we pull to facilitate behavior change. And to do that, people need the right motivation: it has to matter to them.
Explain to managers exactly how you will rate them for their effectiveness and how it affects their pay. Here’s one example of how HR leaders can gauge manager effectiveness. First, use some type of framework or model (like the BEST framework) for assessing the manager’s impact on their team. Second, measure the outcomes of their management on team performance and productivity.
Help managers understand why you’re assessing their effectiveness and how holding them accountable helps you hold the organization accountable, too. Fostering behavior changes can help reveal blind spots where your people processes and manager support resources may not be up to par.
For example, as RedThread Research’s Stacia Garr explained in a People Fundamentals webinar session, many organizations aren’t setting clear enough expectations for employees, making it even more challenging for managers to hold employees to the correct standards. Similarly, while many organizations collect team-based performance and engagement data, they rarely share that information with managers or teach them to interpret and apply it. Once you’re aware of gaps in manager training and support, you can take steps to give managers what they need to be more effective.
By putting measures in place for assessing manager effectiveness and holding them (and yourself) accountable, you can drastically improve the performance of individuals, teams, and your business.
Caitlin Collins is an Organizational Psychologist and Program Strategy Director at Betterworks. She is an expert in her field on performance enablement, change enablement, and learning and development, and works with global organizations to align outcomes with business strategy.
Learn more about the BEST framework