Employees Improving Bosses

A recent employee survey shows that, while their bosses are ethical and professional, they could stand to communicate better in times of crisis, resolve workplace conflicts and be open about their own weaknesses.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
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While employees may believe their bosses act ethically and professionally, they also feel that supervisors need to improve on a host of other measures -- and human resource leaders can help them do that, according to a recent survey.

Healthy Companies Intl., based in Arlington, Va., surveyed 2,700 employees throughout North America about how they feel their immediate supervisors rated on 20 personal characteristics. More than 80 percent of respondents said their bosses act in an ethical manner and behave professionally toward employees, but approximately a third said their bosses needed to improve in communicating a clear vision of success, motivating employees during adversity, and being open about their own strengths and weaknesses.

"As a person becomes a boss and goes up the organization, it's easy to become isolated and many end up being 'Captain Oblivious,'" says Steven Parker, HCI's president. "They're the last to know about their own weaknesses, some of which can be very glaring. But somebody has to be the first to tell them."

That's how HR leaders can best play a role -- being the first to either let supervisors know about how they can improve, or referring feedback from their direct reports, he says.

"You want HR leaders to be the champion and ambassador of an organization, to have a culture of openness, where regular feedback is the norm, not the exception," Parker says.  "They should encourage both positive and negative feedback about a boss, to make it easier for them to handle."

While some managers excel at supporting their employees during times of crisis, some "overthink" in those situations and act like "managerial robots," he says.

"HR leaders can help their managers get better at being empathetic," he says. "They can counsel them and be their sounding board, letting bosses know if something they are trying to say is not coming across right. This gives them confidence before they go out with it in prime time."

Judah Kurtz, manager of talent solutions at BPI Group in Chicago and an executive coach, says that HR leaders can provide managers coaching or guidance to improve their weaknesses, particularly in showing genuine empathy during adversity, communicating with employees how everyone can contribute to lessen negative impacts and removing any obstacles to prevent them from doing so.

"Particularly in times of crisis, bosses need to help employees understand how they can help the bottom line," Kurtz says. "Bosses also need to communicate messages from the top quickly, to stop the rumor mill."

Patrick Kulesa, global research director for Towers Watson in New York, says his firm creates surveys for companies "in transition," which means they either may be experiencing a change in leadership, are being acquired or just performing poorly. In these surveys, employees in such companies tend to report poorer communication by their immediate supervisors, particularly in times of adversity.

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"The immediate manager is usually distracted by the issues happening around them, so often their communication to employees becomes a challenge,"

But it's incumbent upon supervisors to communicate honestly how employees are impacted by the transition, or how they can help improve poor performance, he says.

"Really, it's about people losing their sense of security, and HR leaders need to help managers find ways to recognize them and let them know their contributions are still valuable," Kulesa says.

Many times, bosses at well-performing companies also have a problem with communicating, particularly informally when employees need to learn how they, themselves, can improve, says Pete Foley, a principal at Mercer's Atlanta office.

"It's the hardest thing to be critical and offer constructive advice on how to improve performance," Foley says. "While it may not be a pleasant experience, the mature individual will take it as something they need to change, because they really want to succeed."

It may be tough for bosses to deliver such criticism, but ultimately it not only helps the organization's overall mission, but also the development of individual employees, he says.

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