What Is Your Great Manager Checklist?

A blog on workplace culture from Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, published online a couple weeks ago, made me think yet again about what makes a manager great.

The blog focused on workplace culture, and how much of that culture depends on managers, or as Gallup calls them, “team leaders.” Clifton writes: “Truly great cultures are different because they are loaded with star team leaders. You might ask, ‘Gallup, over your 40 years of studying lousy-to-great cultures, have you found a silver bullet?’ Our Chief Workplace Scientist Jim Harter would answer, ‘Yes, the silver bullet is your managers (team leaders).’ They, by themselves, determine if you have a lousy, good, or great culture. They are the silver bullet…Remarkably, 70 percent of the variance between lousy, good, and great cultures can be found in the knowledge, skills, and talent of the team leader. Not the players, but the team leader. This is one of Gallup’s most profound workplace breakthroughs.”

Does your company keep a dossier of your ideal manager profile and characteristics? Skills and knowledge for each department, or line of business, obviously vary, but it seems like every company should be able to identify, beyond knowledge and skills, the consistent characteristics of a great manager.

I have my own list. Do you have one you could create and share with the heads of all of your lines of business to better inform the people you choose as managers?

The first crucial characteristic for me is for the manager to be a person who isn’t in love with having authority. The last thing you want is a person whose greatest joy in the manager role will be getting to tell others what to do, and getting to be the voice of authority.

Next, I would think about having a manager who knows how to do whatever he or she is managing. Sometimes, maybe even too often, a person is asked to manage others who are doing work the manager doesn’t know how to do himself, and/or which he tried doing himself and failed at. Imagine how that person’s employees feel taking orders from a person who doesn’t understand their work, or has critiques to offer, but failed at doing the very work she now is offering criticism about. I’ve experienced it, and it angers me. The employee with a manager who has never done the work herself is liable to dismiss the manager’s observations as notes from the peanut gallery. At least that’s what I always think to myself when a person who never did my job, or never successfully did it, chimes in with critiques.

Aside from all the practical concerns of having a manager who doesn’t know how to do the work of those under him, employees won’t respect such a manager.

Third, you want manager with emotional intelligence. You can be an introvert, but you can’t be emotionally stupid—meaning stupid about reading other peoples’ emotions and understanding how to best talk and interact with them—and be a good manager.

The only people you want to be managers are people you know for sure can give guidance and directions, and get employees to listen to them, without coming across as dictatorial, bullying, or generally unpleasant. One way to get a sense of people’s emotional intelligence is observing how they ask co-workers, and their own managers, to do things for them. Do they phrase the requests as questions, and emphasize how much they would appreciate whatever it is they are asking for, or do they phrase the request like an impolite order being given at a diner? How else do you think you can tell if a person is smart about how he or she interacts with others? Is an emotional intelligence assessment enough, or are there real-life examples of behavior that company leaders should make note of in deciding who gets to become a manager?

In addition to making sure you have a diplomatic, sensitive person, who knows how to do the work, I urge you to be wary of appointing people to manager roles who are friends with the person they will be working under. Ideally, the person hiring the manager respects and likes the manager, but isn’t overly close with him or her. Despite your best efforts, there may be conflict between the manager and an employee or two. When that happens, you don’t want a boss who reflexively, blindly follows the old “trust your managers” mantra. Instead, you want a boss who will be impartial, giving as much weight to the employee’s perspective as to the manager’s. I’ve experienced at least two times in my career the phenomenon of the boss who doesn’t bother speaking to employees about their concerns and perspectives, and sometimes doesn’t speak to employees at all. Besides being unfair, it’s dangerous to blindly trust your managers. You want to have faith in their abilities, and who they are as people, but no one is infallible, or immune to pettiness. Managers who become competitive with high-performing employees who work under them, and then misrepresent, or under-represent, them to their boss, probably can be found at companies more often than you think. Implement 360-degree reviews for your managers. If a question about any employee arises, be sure to advise the boss to speak with the employee alone, giving equal time and weight to what both the employee and the manager have to say.

What is your checklist of ideal managerial traits? How can a company make sure its managers don’t undermine the kind of culture it aspires to?

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