How Managers Drive Away Your Best People Without Meaning To

by Stephen Meyer on January 24, 2011

You’ve no doubt heard that employees don’t quit good companies; they quit bad bosses.

Some bosses are insensitive tyrants who demean or belittle people. But most are well-intentioned managers who genuinely want to do a good job. Trouble is, they often suffer from interpersonal “blind spots,” and don’t see the harm they are doing.

Of course, what begins as a manager’s problem soon becomes HR’s problem. You have to find replacements, and you may even find yourself in the hot seat for excessive turnover.

How HR can help: When skillful exit-interview questions or complaints from workers reveal these blind spots, you can use this insight to help managers see the problems they are causing. You can also head off problems with training and timely reminders for new managers.

Here are the five most common blind spots to watch for, along with suggestions for counseling managers:

1. Only thinking they’re listening. Managers know it’s important to hear what subordinates are saying. But too often, managers think they’re listening when they’re not. A manager with a multitude of things on her mind may unconsciously shift to them during an employee conversation. She’ll look like she’s listening – and believe she is! – but come away from the conversation with little understanding of the person’s situation. Pretty soon word gets around that such a manager isn’t interested, or worse, is a phony – even if it’s not true.

Solution: Recommend the manager keep a logbook. After each significant talk with an employee, he should write down the person’s main two or three points in the log. If the manager can’t, he should go back to the employee and get clarification.

2. Drifting into partiality. Employees smell favoritism a mile away. They even see it where it isn’t. Managers shouldn’t fuel their suspicions. The problem is, managers do have favorites, just as parents sometimes do. One subordinate makes a manager laugh, while another is distant and hard to like. A manager can easily fall victim to a blind spot and respond to the agreeable worker with extra leniency.

Solution: Every so often, a manager can make a list of subordinates and ask himself about each name: “Have I been fair to this person recently?” If there’s any doubt, he can look for a chance to show appreciation. Remember, employees don’t demand treatment be perfectly equal as long as they perceive it as fair.

3. Blowing hot and cold. Nothing turns people off like someone who is warm and friendly one time, icy and formal the next. You don’t know where you stand. Managers suffer from blind spots about the perceived consistency of their behavior. A manager may believe he’s generally pleasant, with the odd cranky day, while employees see him as so up-and-down that they steer clear.

Solution: The manager can ask a trusted mentor or fellow manager for a periodic reading on whether the rank and file see him as consistent or not.

4. Forced optimism. A manager needs to be positive. But a blind spot can hide the line between optimism and Pollyanna-ish behavior. Employees grow annoyed and lose faith when they see a manager as unrealistically upbeat.

Solution: When a manager asks employees how things are going, he should watch their reaction. If they hesitate to be open, it’s a sign they think he doesn’t want to hear anything that deviates from official “happy talk.”

5. Overusing meetings. Managers may not feel they’re really managing unless they call everybody in for a huddle. That’s a blind spot: Employees see unproductive meetings as mainly serving the manager’s ego.

Solution: Restrict the number of meetings and limit their length. Half an hour is usually plenty.