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How Good Enough Managers Can Boost Employee Morale

Aaron Nurick

There is an adage in the organizational behavior world that posits that employees don’t leave organizations; rather, they leave bad managers who create and perpetuate toxic work environments. Instead of “sick” buildings, where workers develop physical maladies because of emanations from poorly ventilated insulation or carpeting, these are emotionally toxic environments that at times can border on abusive. 

The issue takes on more salience in these economically challenged times when managers, under greater pressure to produce, try to squeeze more work out of fewer employees, who have even fewer places to go if they are unhappy and morale is poor. Employees in these situations often sense that it is better to keep one’s head down and not complain or challenge the prevailing culture out of fear of being cut or fired. This attitude is self-defeating, both for the employee and the company, as these cultures inhibit the venturing forth of new and innovative ideas that are necessary to compete effectively and improve the economy.

Large-scale studies from the Center for Creative Leadership, and surveys by Gallup and Yahoo, tend to confirm these tendencies, and identify emotional issues, such as rigidity and poor relationships, as the primary culprits for poor employee morale. However, there are deeper currents running beneath these surface behaviors.

The anxiety generated by economic uncertainty and information overload, intensified by electronic interactions that are less personal and lack the benefits of more nuanced communication, can heighten the desire to control events and people in some less secure and emotionally unintelligent managers. They, in turn, treat employees more as expendable objects, or the equivalent of work animals, to be motivated by either the dangling carrot or the threat of a stick — a phenomenon identified many years ago by a great mentor and management thinker, Harry Levinson, as “the great jackass fallacy.” Such managerial behavior may momentarily reduce anxiety by giving the illusion of certainty and control, but it can leave a lot of human damage and resentment in its wake.

In its annual listing of the “top places to work,” the Boston Globe recently concluded that beyond fair pay and good benefits, these stellar firms were characterized by sound leadership and appreciation and respect for employees. My own research on managerial behavior confirms many of these observations. I reached out to a large population of working professionals via a confidential and secure website, and asked them to provide narratives about their “best” and “worst” managers. My content analysis of more than 1,000 responses concluded that the best managers were described as mentors and teachers, relationship builders, and models of integrity. Key themes such as support, respect, autonomy, fairness, and clear communication appeared repeatedly in the best manager narratives. On the other hand, the worst managers were perceived as controlling micro-managers who took credit for others’ work and blamed others for their own mistakes. Many of the same themes appeared in their opposite form: untrustworthy, disrespectful, and poor communication. 

It is indeed possible to create productive and emotionally healthy work environments by letting go of illusions of certainty and perfection, and creating “good enough facilitating work environments” that find the dynamic tension point between enough autonomy and enough control. Such an environment was beautifully captured by two employees speaking about their “best” managers:

"My best manager earned that distinction by giving me the space I needed to do my job "my way" while being close enough to support me and provide help so I didn't fail. That line between close enough but not too close is a fine one, and the ability to do that requires excellent people skills and evaluation skills."

"When my boss gave me tasks, he framed them by sharing a vision and goal. He did not give step by step instructions. Instead, he gave me the goal and set the guardrails — or boundaries. If I ever got close to a guardrail, he made it comfortable to approach him with questions. Instead of giving me the answer, he would ask more questions so that I could think up a solution myself. If I were performing fine (within the guardrails), my boss would trust me to execute on the vision or achieve the goal."

It was no accident that my study also found that employees stayed with their best manager on average a year longer than the worst. Apparently, they had a reason to stay. Autonomy within well established and well communicated (and high) expectations is a key to better morale and productivity. The “good enough managers" (or GEMs) find that precarious balance.

Aaron J. Nurick is professor of Management and Psychology at Bentley University and the author of The Good Enough Manager: The Making of a GEM (Routledge, 2012).