Each year, the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program in San Francisco gets about 300 complaints from employees. But when the EEO investigates, it finds that a tiny portion -- under 10 percent -- are actually the result of discrimination or harassment. Rather, most complaints come from weak managerial skills that leave employees feeling mistreated when they're passed over for a raise or a promotion, or shifted from one job to another. "About 90 to 95 percent of our complaints identify issues with managers," says Linda Simon, deputy director of the city and county Department of Human Resources.
All the managerial systems in the world, it appears, aren't strong enough or thoughtful enough to overcome the problems that can be created by supervisors or managers who lack communication skills, fail to listen to employees, treat them poorly or don't provide honest feedback about job performance.
Of course, there's no evidence that poor managers are in the majority. But there is plenty of proof, both statistical and anecdotal, that there are enough of them to warrant concern. We suspect that most of the readers of this column will agree with that, based on their own work history.
We also suspect that a number of readers would agree that many of the problems mentioned aren't the managers' faults. After all, these folks are often promoted from non-managerial to managerial positions because of the good work they've done. The issue is that they don't get sufficient training for a world in which people are dependent on them to create an environment conducive to success.
According to PwC People Analytics, a division of the consulting and auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, this is somewhat more of an issue in the public sector than in the U.S. population as a whole. A survey conducted by the firm last year showed that government employees were less positive about the role supervisors played in their growth and development (38 percent vs. 48 percent favorable), and less positive about the regular feedback received from supervisors to help improve performance (47 percent versus 57 percent). Supervisors in the public sector also received a less positive response for effective listening (55 percent vs. 61 percent).
Brooke Bascom, employee engagement manager in King County, Wash., says that one common problem is that supervisors ignore problems rather than deal with them. "That's frustrating to the coworker who feels they're doing all the work," she said. "They go to their supervisor but nothing is done about it."
In a King County employee survey in October, one of the statements that yielded the lowest positive response was, "My supervisors deal with problems among co-workers effectively." Only 49 percent of employees answered that question positively.
In a study published several years after the end of the recession, by Jonathan West, director of the masters program in public administration at the University of Miami, about 45 percent of high-level managers believed that one or more bad work habits was present in their subordinate managers or the supervisors under them. Bad habits that were most prevalent were being judgmental, overly aggressive, intimidating or overly passive. Other common bad habits were the willingness to take credit for the accomplishment of others and defensiveness, distrust and the inability to accept criticism.
Supervisory shortcomings are familiar to human resources directors in just about every job setting. In Juneau, Alaska, Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove talks about the technically proficient supervisor who was so inconsistent in his manner from day to day that employees started talking about him as "Good Joe" and "Bad Joe." "People never knew who they'd get when they came to work," she said.
One study conducted in an employment counseling center of a Midwestern state found the relationship with the supervisor was the most important driver of job satisfaction. Three other factors were found to have a statistically significant impact on job satisfaction: Individual motivation, workload and an employee's sense of value for the job performed. But the supervisor-employee relationship had twice as much impact as the other factors. "Those indicating they are 'very satisfied' are likely to have a favorable relationship with their supervisor and conversely those indicating a response that is less than satisfied are likely to have a poor relationship with their supervisor," according to the study by professors at Northwestern University.
"I think you could argue that the immediate supervisor has the most impact on your work experience. That person can make it miserable or make it a positive experience," says Neil Reichenberg, executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. The fact that supervisors often lack skills and knowledge about basic human resources practices -- such as how to improve employee performance -- has led his organization to launch a new training program to communicate the basics. "Supervisors don't know about managing performance. The bottom line is that they don't want to have difficult conversations."
An awareness of this issue has led many states and localities to step up supervisory training, making sure that anyone who oversees other employees has the skills to provide positive coaching to improve performance, doesn't shy away from conflict and knows how to listen to what employees are saying. "We have really started to think about the competencies that our managers and supervisors need and we've started to redesign our training program," says King County's Bascom. "Since conflict management showed up as weak, we're beefing that up in our training."