It’s generally considered a bad idea to condemn large groups of people on the basis of a single characteristic. Unless they’re middle managers. Since the 1980s middle managers have been fair game for every kind of disparagement. They’ve been called Dilberts, labeled as an extraneous layer of control, a pointless budget drain and a parking spot for mediocrity. But recently, Slate ran an article called The Happiness Machine about the volumes of data Google collects to ensure its HR policies are keeping employees happy. And that data says that middle managers—at least good ones—have been grossly under-appreciated.
Now this is coming from a company founded by people who believed managers were unnecessary. That you just need to hire brilliant people, incentivize them and give them room to run. That’s a perspective many small business owners embrace because it seems less expensive and cumbersome. But Google has verified through data what many of us knew all along: teams with good managers are much more productive and have much lower attrition rates than teams with low scoring managers. But not all managers are inherently good managers. They have to be trained. At Google, they trained their unsuccessful managers on the characteristics touted in the successful ones. These were things like “being a good coach” and not micromanaging. When they taught the lower scoring managers those skills, their attrition rates dropped and productivity rose.
This is another place where small businesses frequently try to save money with poor results. They don’t want to pay for training for their managers. But that can easily turn into a situation where, by trying to save money, you lose a lot more. Recruiting, hiring, and training someone costs between $5,000 to $20,000, generally speaking. If you invest that in an employee, then oversee that employee’s productivity and happiness, you’ve made a good investment. But if you keep losing those people because of a bad manager—and statistics show most people leave jobs because of their immediate supervisors—you’re going to wind up spending a lot more than you save.
People in the C-suite don’t have time to do what managers do: Train employees thoroughly on the organization’s systems, documents and culture; mediate disputes between employees; confer with the employee who has a loose relationship with time or a sense of humor that tends toward harassment. They don’t necessarily have the skills and training to balance the needs of employees with the needs of the company and the customers. To communicate with and coach many different kinds of people.
We love the Dilbert cartoons as much as anybody but we were glad to see the bastion of data, Google, verifying what we’ve seen at many companies for years: A good middle manager is a wonderful asset.
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.