Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Manager Letdown Syndrome

Over the last few months we've been doing a number of analyses of big employee survey / employee engagement data sets. As part of that work, we've done a series of studies looking at what causes changes in scores from 2008 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2010 (for those that have 2010 data). The analyses include a number of control variables, including personal demographics such as job level, job type, gender and then department or business unit demographics and lastly location demographics. The analysis predicts changes in employee survey scores, such as changes in employee engagement.



Across the studies we've been doing and regardless of who the survey vendor is or what the predetermined scales or indices are suppose to be, we have uncovered 3 core scales. The first index (or scale, set of questions) is about "me" - we think it can safely be labeled employee engagement or motivation. I say that because it includes questions on motivation, pride, commitment, energy, willingness to go above and beyond at work, or the types of things the vendors and academics are saying should go into an employee engagement scale. The second bucket is about my manager. These questions are about a number of topics, including how my manager rewards people, talks to people, is fair to people, etc. The last group of quetions focus on leadership and the firm. These questions may be directly about leaders, or they may be about company practices.



In study after study, we keep finding what we thought was a really odd pattern - the higher the scores on "my manager" in the first survey, the lower the scores on engagement in the 2nd survey. Let me say this again - the more positive attitudes were about the manager in the first year, the lower the engagement scores were in the 2nd year.



Ok.. this makes no sense right? That's what I thought. So we looked for all the statistical issues that may be to blame, and we found this did not explain the data. Then we started reading comment data from year 1 and year 2, and from this work, we have a working hypothesis to propose. The hypothesis also is based on the knowledge that the manager negative effect is stronger in firms where more negative things happened over the year we studied. These organizations had more layoffs, rougher layoffs, etc.



Manager Letdown Syndrome



I am speculating that the more employees felt positive about their managers in year 1, the more they were let down by them when the company bad stuff happened (e.g. my friend was laid off, we shrunk the company, they took away my benefits, and the list goes on). Because the employee feels let down by his/her manager, the engagement scores go down.



What does the manager do?



While this is academically interesting, we have to think about the manager who is now in the position of having let his/her people down. First, the manager likely was not really responsible for these events; it was someone higher up in the hierarchy. Second, the manager probably doesn't know this is happening. Third, what is the manager to do? If managers start rebuilding relationships, are they setting themselves up for more problems because they are likely to be in the letdown position again.



Should senior leaders take the fall? Maybe they should cover for their managers and be more open about the organizational level practices,protecting the relationship that the manager built with the employees.


I'd like to hear your ideas. In the next post, I'll list some actions that I've seen work.