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Why people managers get no love

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Brittany Tilstra
Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
March 4, 2020

Senior talent leaders will often hear from employees that they want more support from their managers, they are not getting enough 1:1 time, and that communication with their manager is poor overall. Frustration with direct managers is on the rise. And worse, at an organizational level, employees who don’t get what they want from their managers, become high churn risks. When they leave, they'll take institutional knowledge with them and you'll be saddled with higher recruitment costs, plus additional time and money to onboard new hires. When you start to do the math, it's easy to point the finger at managers for being neglectful... but is it really their fault? We tried searching for sources that empathized with the managers’ predicament and came up dry. Why do managers get such a bad rap? 

It’s common for employees to expect the world of their managers. And maybe this would make sense about 60 years ago when the American Dream ethos was prevalent and upward mobility had a clear path with few barriers (for a privileged group of individuals). Back then, a manager could easily point out the next steps and the skillsets required for each employee to move to the next position because the path was relatively standard. Employees also stayed at the same company for the majority of their careers, so retention and succession planning were non-issues.

Fast forward to today. Corporate structures have changed drastically and continue to change at an increasing rate. If you haven't experienced a restructure, you're in a tiny minority. Skill sets constantly change too—within three years, 35% of the skills required for work will change. Transforming job descriptions result in fragmented career paths as opposed to the corporate ladder path of yesteryear. Employees need to focus on their professional development and continually update their skillsets and keep in touch with their network, or risk becoming stagnant or laid off. 

Countless surveys report that the number one thing employees want is career growth. When an employee wants to take a step forward in their career, the first person they reach out to is their manager. Here is where things get foggy. Today's managers do not have a standardized path laid out for employees.

When a manager cannot point to a clear path, what do you think the employee does?

In a Udemy Employee Experience Report, more than half of the employees surveyed had quit because of a bad manager, and almost two-thirds believed their manager lacked proper managerial training. You've heard the old saying—people don't quit their jobs, they quit their managers.

Adding insult to injury is the record-low unemployment rate. Your top talent is likely getting courted by sponsored LinkedIn posts and recruiters, and for many people, it’s a much clearer path than applying to roles within their current organization. 

The best-case scenario for an employee looking to advance is a manager that acts as an advocate and facilitates connections to other decision-makers and leaders within the organization. Unfortunately, not every employee will have that experience. Now that paths are fragmented, employees need more personalized career plans, and this process needs to be accessible to every employee. Not just the employees with superstar managers.

But is talent quitting your organization the fault of their manager? Short answer, no. 

We interviewed countless managers, and it's clear they feel responsible for their direct reports' career development. The shift in career pathing has hit managers the hardest because they are expected to interpret the matrix of possibilities in a massive organization and create personalized plans for each direct report. One person we interviewed referred managers as “career concierges," highlighting the personalization required for each individual career path.

On average, people managers have 11 direct reports, with some leading a team of up to 35 people.

Even a superstar manager could not act as a thoughtful connector for 11 people on top of the typical personal and team objectives. It's an impossible task, and the side effect is managers become a bottleneck for internal opportunities.

So, where do we go from here?

Many companies have chosen to invest in manager training, spending upwards of $24 billion worldwide. The research doesn’t reveal all of the topics that are covered in this training, but, unless it includes a cloning procedure, this drain on your budget is only stressing out your managers by taking away precious time from their already hectic schedules. 

Instead of expecting managers to do it all, it’s time to change the dynamic between manager and employee entirely. Empower employees to carve their own path by providing resources and visibility into internal opportunities so they can bypass the bottleneck entirely. Create a culture where employees are responsible for their own careers. Employee autonomy is critical for a high-performance culture. Not only will your superstar employees rise to the top faster, but your people managers will breathe a sigh of relief.

Read more about our new rules for career pathing here.

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