Here’s what good managers actually do: Lessons from 80,000 data points

A public speaker rockstar with a stammer

It’s mid-June in the late 70s. A small village in the south of England. 13-year-old Marcus is about to step on stage and face the most humiliating experience of his life. In a moment he will speak to the 300 students gathered in the chapel of his prep school and he hasn’t had any time to rehearse.

For another kid this might mean possible embarrassment, but for Marcus it spells inevitable disaster. Born with a stammer so bad it takes him twenty minutes to read a few sentences, he knows that he’s going to fail, publicly, and he’s just steeling himself.

But then he speaks and the words tumble out of him fast, fluid. The stammer is gone, as is the old fear of crowds. For some strange reason, Marcus is enjoying this, the standing before a sea of people, plugging into their energy, making a connection. And he shouldn’t have even liked it, should he, much less be good at it. And yet he did and he was.

Today Marcus Buckingham is one of the most celebrated authors and public speakers worldwide. Every year he draws audiences of over 150,000 people. He’s been on Oprah, Larry King, Dave Ramsey, Good Morning America, The Today Show, the list goes on. His books have sold more than 4 million copies.

You’d think his story is the classic one of the underdog beating impossible odds and…you’ll be wrong.

Because that’s not what actually happened. 13-year-old Marcus didn’t overcome a speech impediment so much as he discovered, underneath it, a talent for public speaking that was there all along.

The chapel incident sparked in him a lifelong fascination with talent and performance. After his masters’ degree in political and social science at Cambridge, Buckingham joined The Gallup Group in Arkansas, a curious establishment which over the previous twenty years had gathered survey data on more than 1 million employees and 80,000 managers across hundreds of companies all over the world.

As Buckingham pored over the data, looking for patterns to design better selection interviews for manager roles, he noticed something unexpected: the managers whose teams scored off the charts on productivity, profitability and all sorts of success metrics were doing things that went flat against the business wisdom at the time.

Whatever the rules of management said you should do, they were often doing the exact opposite. They were rule breakers.

For example:

  • They didn’t hire candidates based on experience. Instead they looked for underlying potential.
  • They didn’t worry about people’s weaknesses. Instead, they focused on magnifying employees’ existing strengths.
  • They didn’t favor traditional incentives — the carrots-and-sticks approach to motivation — but made strategic use of praise to get the best out of their people.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Good managers vs. mediocre managers

What Buckingham finds looking at his data is that at its very best management entails a certain weird and wonderful alchemy that he won’t fully grasp until a few years later, years he spent tagging along and closely observing the outliers in his sample.

But in the meantime, the initial 80,000 data points he had on managers allowed him to distill some broad patterns showing what separates the good managers from the mediocre ones.

Here they are:

1. Hire the right people

When you have vacancies to fill, it’s tempting to settle for an okay candidate. You think it’s better to hire someone half decent now that you can train later, molding them into the perfect employee.

But people aren’t that malleable. You can’t hammer and press them into whatever shape you want.

Everyone comes already grooved into certain patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that won’t budge, at least not much and not without enormous effort.

50% of personality, after all, is genetic. Our ingrained patterns are not easy to overwrite.

So you are better off spending more time upfront to make the right hire than take on an average one, hoping that they will change later.

Who is the right hire and how do you pick them out from the pool of applicants?

First you need to know what success on the job looks like: what skills, character traits, attitudes does someone need to have to be successful at it? Here is one mistake a lot of managers make. When they look at potential hires, they give work experience too much weight and brush aside less experienced candidates who might actually make better employees. The problem is that past experience doesn’t predict future performance all that well. A better predictor of success is not time on the job but talent for the job. And it is talent that you should be trying to uncover during your selection process.

But what is talent?

The way Buckingham sees it, talent is not genius or some such mysterious quality. Talent is rather our unique patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that define what we are capable of; the arc of our potential. Put another way, it’s our natural strengths, the things that come easy to us, that we do without conscious effort. As far as Buckingham is concerned, empathy and a sense of responsibility, for example, are talents even if we might not think of them that way.

One of the enduring insights in his data is that people become most successful in the areas of their greatest natural strengths. This means that your best salespeople will not be those with the most experience in sales but those with the underlying talent for selling: say, a competitive instinct, a touch of charisma.

So the question you need to ask yourself at the beginning of the hiring process is: What kind of person will succeed in this role? What specific personality traits, skills, attitudes do they need to possess?

Figure these out and then come up with questions to reveal if the candidate has these strengths.

Some questions are better than others. Direct, yes/no questions are especially bad for a number of reasons, the most important one being that they bias the response you get back. There’s usually a right answer baked into the way you ask the question. If you ask someone if they are competitive or organized or action-biased, it’s obvious that these are the traits you are looking for.

To avoid leading the candidate, you can ask open-ended questions that have several feasible answers rather than just one that’s also obvious. Let’s say, for instance, that you are looking for an office manager, so someone organized. Instead of asking the candidate are you organized, you could say: how have you structured your life to make it as efficient as possible?

When you ask the question this way, you are also preempting vague boilerplate responses. You are asking the candidate to give you specific examples of when, where and how they actually demonstrated the skill you are listening for. And the easier they find it to come up with such examples, the more likely it is that they have a talent, an underlying natural strength.

One of the signs of talent, Buckingham says, is frequent past behavior, so the best candidates will have a number of stories off the top of their head, stories pulled from both daily life and work experience and rife with vivid details.

Conversely, a lesser candidate will make grand generalizations but struggle to come up with clear examples. If this is the case, don’t push and probe for specifics, or they will pick up on the cue, become self-conscious and alter their response. And because you won’t hear their spontaneous reaction, you won’t get that valuable glimpse into who they really are.

One last point about asking good questions: if you can, make them somehow unexpected and indirect. That way you’ll not only weed out practiced responses but you’ll also get a much better measure of how ingrained a certain skill is.

Say, again, you wanted to hire an office manager and you needed someone organized. Instead of probing directly, go at it sideways and ask the candidate “How do you feel about unfinished work?” An organized person will say they hate it. Maybe not explicitly, if they are trying to be delicate about it, but you’ll still be able to tell.

Similarly, if you want to test for a competitive streak, ask the candidate “Are you a good loser?” Competitive people hate losing, with passion. They may couch it and twist it, they may tell you that they are graceful losers, but their real aversion to defeat will show through.

You just need to be strategic about nudging useful responses out of them and you do this by asking open-ended questions with no obvious answers that elicit details in a slightly indirect way.

After that, your job is easy: sit back, shut up and listen.

2. Set clear expectations

When Buckingham looked at survey data on over 1 million employees, half of them said that they didn’t know what’s expected of them at work. If you are a manager, this means that half of your employees probably have little clue about what they are being paid to do.

They may be merely looking productive without delivering results, or they may be working hard but on the wrong things. And the most likely reason is unclear expectations.

When it comes to setting expectations, Buckingham’s research suggests two key elements. First, define the desired outcome of work projects. Without a specific objective, your employees have no way of knowing what to focus on or how to do it in the most efficient way.

What’s important and efficient really depends on the desired end result; a clever shortcut in one situation may well be a distraction in another. What to do, what not to do and how to do it depends on what it is that you are trying to get done. The way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to make sure that there is no ambiguity about the expected end result.

It’s not always a problem of definition, though. It’s about priority, too. There’s usually no shortage of good and desirable things that can be done at work but only so much time to get them done.

The real question then becomes, of all the things anyone could be working on, which ones should they be working on? This is where good managers come in. They take all the data, all the objectives of all relevant stakeholders and distill them into clear immediate priorities.

The second element to setting expectations is to define success metrics. Metrics create a natural feedback mechanism for people to calibrate their results, to tweak things and to improve. It’s not enough for employees to know where they are going; they also need a way to gauge how far off target they are to adjust course.

When setting expectations, it’s tempting to do it once and be done with it. But according to Buckingham, you can never be clear enough.

Good managers use every chance they have to double check, confirm, cement, clarify, refine and re-align expectations.

At first it can feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to repeat ourselves for fear of insulting people’s intelligence. But there’s no reason why you can’t be clear and considerate at the same time. Whether you ask “what do you think you get paid to do” or use a more indirect way, you can experiment and fit your approach to each employee. And in any case, judging by the data, you are probably more likely to be under-communicating that overdoing it.

3. Use praise to drive excellence.

Traditional incentives, carrots and sticks, promotions and layoffs — they are a crude mechanism to motivate others. In practice, though, it’s not always clear how to move beyond it. 
 As Buckingham combed through his data, he saw that one thing good managers do to get the best out of their people is — believe it or not — use praise.

And they didn’t just use it occasionally, to recognize some off-the-charts achievement, but constantly, almost to a fault.

Praise was part of their management style. Their employees knew that if they did they job, they could count on being recognized for it.

This flies in the face of much conventional wisdom, and not just in business. Wouldn’t praise spoil people? Wouldn’t it make them too complacent and lazy? Wouldn’t it kill their ambition to achieve more?

These are valid concerns. But Buckingham thinks we have it backwards. It’s true that people respond to incentives, that consequences shape behavior. We weigh the costs of our choices against the expected benefits and act accordingly. But consequences are not created equal, nor are they necessarily material. There’s a theory by Dr. Aubrey Daniels, a pioneer of applying behavior science in business, which sorts consequences into positive or negative; immediate or far into the future; certain or uncertain.

The least powerful motivators are negative, distant and uncertain consequences.

This is why most diets fail. The pull of immediate gratification is often stronger than the adverse health consequences we may suffer when we are old and grey.

Conversely, the most powerful motivators are consequences that are positive, immediate and predictable. The best managers know this. They notice when their people deliver and acknowledge good performance right away. Their people, in turn, know they will be acknowledged for their achievements, which motivates them to keep achieving more and more. They develop a sort of Pavlovian response to praise. Here’s how Buckingham puts it:

“Praise is not merely a reaction to good performance. It’s a cause of it. In a way the audience creates the performance.”

One reason why this happens, why people push harder when you’d expect them to become complacent and take it easy, is that excellence isn’t a one-off act of genius. Creative work entails so much complexity that anything extraordinary happens incrementally. Success is often the result of small wins eked out over setbacks, added up over time.

The biggest problem in this kind of environment is not that people will become complacent; it’s that they’ll lose heart. It’s easy to feel lost and give in to self-doubt in the face of a big project. To sustain people’s morale, good managers recognize marginal gains; they acknowledge progress rather than wait for perfection. They praise improvement and it gives their people a little win that holds them over the long hard haul.

If praise is good, how much is enough and how much — too much?

Buckingham doesn’t believe in overpraise — as long as it’s genuine and justified. In fact, he says, you are more at risk of praising too little than praising too liberally. When you hold back recognition, people feel not only underappreciated, but also unseen. And if they can’t get your recognition, they may try to at least evoke a reaction, even a negative one. So if you sense that your employees are acting out, it might mean that they don’t feel recognized for their efforts.

4. Show genuine care

The final thing Buckingham discovered about good managers is that they show genuine care for their people. You can tell this didn’t sit quite well with him. Care isn’t the kind of thing a scientist knows what to do with. It’s too intangible, too vague, slippery. It has a fuzzy vibe that can make anyone sensible and hard-nosed bristle.

So when Buckingham talks about care, it’s because he couldn’t call it anything else and he couldn’t argue with the data. And what the data shows is that when people feel cared about at work, they are more productive, less likely to quit, to steal, to miss work days, to file compensation claims, and more willing to recommend their company to others.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound new. It’s why we peddle corporate perks these days, isn’t it: to show that we care for the well-being of our employees. But here’s the problem:

Care is not about perks at all. Care is about relationships.

People need to bond; it’s primal, it’s wired into our DNA. When we bond with others, we feel related to and safe, which makes us more willing to help each other and more open to taking risks. So if you want to engender a culture of creativity and innovation, you have to get personal.

The way to do that by setting a personal example. Be genuinely interested in your employees. Here’s Buckingham: “Be deliberate about it. Be explicit. Tell them that you want them to succeed. Learn about their personal lives and as far as you are able be willing to accommodate the challenges of their personal lives into their work schedules”.

Don’t be alarmed by the accommodation bit, though. Caring is not the same thing as being soft. It doesn’t mean that you need to loosen quality standards or let errors slide in order to protect people’s feelings. Actually, the opposite is true. Like good parents, good managers confront poor performance head on and they do it precisely because they care. As Buckingham puts it, “on a visceral level, they cannot stand the sight of someone they care about staggering along at a mediocre level of performance.”

If this all feels elusive, it’s because care can’t be hacked or faked. Here we go back to Buckingham’s earlier point about people being most successful in the areas of their natural strengths. The best managers have what is called a coaching instinct: they are deeply attuned to other people, they love to see them grow. And “If you don’t”, Buckingham says, “if you resonate more with the predictability of projects than the messy nature of people — don’t fake it. Fake caring is worse than no caring. Just do as I did and get out of management.”

This may sound harsh but one of Buckingham’s most fascinating findings is that managers matter. The surprising thing is that managers matter way more than leaders do when it comes to the success of an organization. In his research 50% of employees quit because of their managers, or as he would say, people join companies and then they leave the boss.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Great management is rare and not everyone is cut out for it. Yet at the same time the bar is so low that you can go far by getting a little bit better, by sucking a little less at it.

The key? Get back to the basics. Hire the right people. Set clear expectations. Praise improvement. Show genuine care.

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