Motivational managers

New research shows managers have a huge role to play in staff motivation, engagement and retention. Virginia Matthews looks at the evidence.

Larger than life business leaders in the Branson, Meaden or Sugar mould may inspire some of us to greater heights, but for the majority of UK businesses, it’s the performance of immediate line managers that makes the difference between keeping talented staff and losing them to the competition.

Whether we are based in Birmingham, Boston or even Beijing, most of us, says the recent Kenexa WorkTrends survey, look to our immediate bosses to keep us motivated, engaged and on-side.

So much so that the practice of promoting staff to managerial level purely on grounds of technical skill has become an urgent issue for UK employers to address, says Jack Wiley, executive director at the Kenexa Research Institute.


He believes that the UK’s low score on employment engagement (54% against a global average of 57%) can largely be laid at the door of widespread disillusionment with junior or middle managers.

“Our survey suggests that only 50% of UK staff believe their managers are effective in terms of their performance, their people management and their leadership skills, while globally the figure is more like 53%,” says Wiley.

“Our message to UK employers is that engagement and ultimately retention is made much harder if managers without any understanding of engagement are put in positions of authority solely on the basis of knowledge and not managerial skill.”

It’s a view endorsed by Huw Hilditch-Roberts, deputy director membership at the Chartered Management Institute, who believes that the prevailing management style in Britain remains “autocratic and bureaucratic.”

“It’s a truism to say that when people leave an organisation, they tend to leave their manager, not their job,” he says. “Our research has repeatedly shown that the feeling of being undervalued seriously affects people’s ability to do their job well and impacts on retention. It can only be offset by continued investment in the professional development of all staff, including managers.”


He warns that despite a long period of downsizing, in some sectors at least, the curse of being over-managed continues to stifle many a promising career. But he adds that it is the current recession as much as excessive micro-management that has brought the role of managers to the fore.

“Being shown respect at work is still up there as an important issue in engagement and retention, but ahead of it this year comes the desire to be on a winning team,” he says.

“As drivers for engagement, quality work and good skills development have become far more vital to staff looking to make themselves more marketable as economic conditions worsen.”

When it comes to retaining staff, there are clearly other issues aside from who you report to. Kenexa’s study finds that wherever we work in the world, stimulating and meaningful work, a decent work-life balance and the opportunity to improve our CV continues to make the difference between signing on for the long-term or quitting after a few months. So is it fair to blame line managers when the retention wish-list goes off-course?


Yes, says James Bywater, head psychologist at SHL UK, who believes that “middle managers continue to be an unloved bunch, but often for very good reason.”

“After years of being eclipsed by the charismatic business leaders who tend to get the spotlight, it is once again clear that who you directly report to each day influences your entire business life and your view of the organisation,” he adds.

“The truth is that it is managers who directly affect whether people are given challenging work or are sidelined, whether they are allowed to innovate and develop professionally or are simply left to feel aggrieved. On that basis alone, it’s a role that demands far more attention from HR.”

Tips for managers

  • Don’t oversell a job or hide the negatives. Treat your staff as adults even when times are bad.
  • Say ‘thank you’ more often.
  • Attempt to understand individual motivations of team members and make allowances for personal foibles.
  • Show integrity. Do what you say you are going to do and be honest and fair.
  • Cut out the politics and favouritism and accept personal criticism.
  • Give feedback. People want to know how they are doing but in the current recession, managers need to focus on the positive.
  • Coach. When people need to improve in certain areas of their work, offer coaching. This not only shows you care, but addresses two key ‘pillars of engagement’: the opportunity to improve skills, and the message that staff have a promising future with you.
  • Be available. Operate a genuine open door policy, draw out business ideas from staff and ensure these are put into action.
  • Fix problems fast, or face looking like you don’t care or don’t know how to do your job. Either is an engagement buster.
  • Don’t be afraid to overtly manage.

Case study: line managers at Moller-Maersk

Copenhagen-based oil and shipping conglomerate A P Moller-Maersk employs more than 110,000 staff in 20 businesses, more than 5,000 of whom are based in the UK. Each year, it issues an invitation to all employees to assess the performance of their line managers.

Its confidential and anonymous engagement survey, which last year attracted responses from 89% of staff, also covers ‘high-performance’ issues around remuneration, organisational change and work-life balance.

In the last survey, employees were asked to rate their line manger on 13 separate performance criteria. Two-thirds (73%) of them were favourably disposed towards their immediate boss, compared with 69% the previous year.

“To win the marketplace, we need great leaders,” says general manager of group HR, Thomas Hedegaard Rasmussen. “The feedback from the engagement survey is an important tool both to help our leaders improve and to assess the effectiveness of our own leadership courses.”

Each year, engagement scores for each of the different business units are benchmarked against Kenexa’s database of the top 25% of high-performing companies in the Fortune 500 list. In direct response to the findings, Moller-Maersk has introduced a series of local and group-wide initiatives in areas such as leadership, performance and communication.

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