In the coming month or two we’ll be unveiling the findings of our new Frontline Worker study, but today I want to share a few statistics that are practical and targeted at a common problem every employer faces today.

15-plus years ago when I got married, I thought I knew what it meant to support someone. I also thought I understood the person standing beside me, because we’d been together for a few years before finally walking down the aisle together. Turns out I still had plenty to learn (and still do), because people are deep, complex creatures that blend rational and irrational thought, emotional and analytical thinking, and a host of other factors that make relationships exponentially more dynamic than they might seem at first glance.

I say that because I want to ask you a question: can you really support someone if you don’t understand them? 

In this new study of thousands of global frontline workers, we found some amazing insights into what makes people tick, how they perceive work relationships, and more. Many of the findings will be especially helpful for those that have deskless workers and/or work in industries where people have more physical work spaces, but the piece below is relevant to every organization that hires and promotes managers from within. The topic I want to dive into today is manager understanding and support.

And before you think “we already know this is a priority” or “we already do this,” consider this statistic from the study:

Workers who say their manager understands them are 3x more likely to say “I’m happy in my current job with no plans to leave.”

What the Data Indicate

For a long time we’ve known the value and impact of a great manager on an employee’s work experience. We’ve also known the opposite: poor managers hamper performance and drive away great performers.

There was a study done a few years ago that was highlighted in the book All In (Gostick and Elton). In an effort to increase overall performance, a company split its teams into good and poor performers. Then it switched some of the managers on good teams to poor teams and vice versa. Within just a few months, the performance on the good teams had dropped after they got a manager from a poor team, but the opposite was also true as the poor-performing teams elevated their performance after receiving a supportive, helpful leader to guide them.

Our new data indicate a key part of this support that matters:

If someone says their manager understands them, they are 6,000+% more likely to feel supported by their manager.

Not only is this interesting, but it’s powerful for employee retention, performance, and more.

In one of our recent studies, we saw that someone who doesn’t feel supported by their direct manager is 2x more likely to leave their job in the next 30 days!

How to Solve for This: 5 Relevant Concepts

Let’s face it. In a perfect world, nobody would have to hope for a manager that paid attention to them, understood them, and supported them.

But we don’t live in that perfect world. So we have to make some decisions about how to help our managers to better understand their people.

First and foremost, we have to rethink leadership selection (or at least start thinking about it for the first time)

We have to stop picking managers based on how long they’ve been at the company and start picking them based on their inclination and ability to actually lead others. It’s like a bad joke that keeps repeating itself over and over again. We all know it happens. But it continues to happen, and it has to stop.

Second, we need to help managers understand that their role is not just about delivering their own results, but about the results of their entire team.

The old adage “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” has never been more true. In a work environment that is constantly shifting and changing, people need to know that their leaders care about them and the work they do. In a recent product evaluation for an employee feedback technology provider, I was very intrigued to see that the results from the employee feedback cycles were packaged to be reviewed as a team, not just from the manager’s perspective.

A great manager elevates the performance of the people on their team. They are an amplifier, not a diffuser.

Managers, especially ones that have never led others before, need specialized training.

In my first ever HR job years ago, I sat in on a training session for new supervisors. I was amazed after five days of videos and discussions about all the “shall nots” that were shared with them. It was mindboggling. Once it was over, I raised my hand to ask the leadership team when we were going to give our managers something to aspire to, not just shy away from.

See, we as an organization had very clearly outlined the minimum threshold, but we never once told them what great leadership looked like at the company. What a missed opportunity. No wonder people are quitting their jobs and their managers.

We model other managers/leaders we see, for better or for worse.

If your senior leaders feel somehow exempt from this, prepare for bad things to happen. See, they aren’t just not exempt from these principles–they are actually setting the standard by which other leaders judge their own performance. If your leadership team belittles others, steals ideas, or gossips ruthlessly, managers who report up to them can justify ignoring their people or skipping out on supporting them because of the age old excuse “at least I’m not as bad as those other people.”

Leadership isn’t like riding a bike. You can’t do it once and then it’s always with you. It requires work, attention, and effort. But the resulting performance of a well-supported and engaged team is much higher than one with poor leadership.

If you need to make it more practical or sticky, tie in compensation.

It’s amazing how behaviors tied to pay suddenly become important. Just look at some of the companies that have embedded DEI principles into their talent operations, including executive bonuses that are contingent on elevating women leaders or hiring/developing diverse individuals. We can do the same thing with leaders. We can look at their scores for employee belonging (more coming on this in this frontline research study findings), scores for manager understanding, and scores for manager support. We can use those data points to determine if managers are doing the minimum or if they are going beyond in an attempt to support, develop, and engage their teams.

Technologies Help, But…

There are an incredible number of technologies that support better management of staff. To name a few categories:

  • Retention predictors that can help managers and HR know where to spend time, what to invest in, and how to increase the chances of employee retention at a granular level.
  • Voice of the employee solutions that give employers greater insight into what matters for workers, what they care about, and how to support them.
  • Recognition systems that help to deliver targeted comments and encouragement to workers, driving higher performance and satisfaction.
  • Career pathing tools that guide managers and their teams as they think about how to elevate high performers to other roles within the business.

But at the end of the day, it comes down to a human taking that next step to support their team members. That manager has to be willing, or all of the outputs from these tools are for nothing.

Why This Topic, And Why Now?

There’s not a company I’ve talked to in the last few months that isn’t spending some time and effort focusing on employee retention. Many of them are trying to do so with a focus on pay or benefits. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re ignoring the most critical relationship someone has at work, you are only creating a temporary, partial fix for what is a greater problem.

Managers and leaders are critical linchpins in the workplace, and we have to prioritize what they need and how they operate if we want to have a workforce that is committed to doing their best work every day.