Employee Engagement

How to improve the manager-employee relationship

Connection at work is critical, but it can also feel intangible. Organizations have a hard time defining it, measuring it, and creating it—especially in today’s hybrid work world. But employees crave it, and they’re quitting to find it.

The manager and employee relationship is a particularly important source of employee connection, but new Blueboard research shows that most organizations are struggling to help employees connect authentically with their leaders. 

Thankfully, where there’s a gap, there’s an opportunity. 

We sat down with experts from Culture Amp, Blueboard, and Bravely to discuss the state of manager and employee relationships, as well as best practices and strategies organizations can use to help their People leaders close this connection gap. Our experts included: 

  • Allyson Tom, VP of People & Culture at Blueboard
  • Kenneth Matos, Director of People Science at Culture Amp
  • Lynda Tarras, Pro & Leadership Coach at Bravely
  • Natasha Wahid, Director of Content at Blueboard (moderator)

Watch the full conversation on manager-employee connection:

First: What do we mean by “employee connection”?

“Employee connection” or “workplace connection” can feel really ambiguous—and your People leaders do not have time to try to solve an unclear problem. So, we began our research and this conversation by creating a holistic definition of connection at work that spans four distinct dimensions.

Employee connection means:

  1. Employees feel connected to the company's mission, values, and leadership vision
  2. Employees feel connected to their coworkers and managers through authentic relationships
  3. Employees feel connected to the work they’re doing and understand its impact on company goals
  4. Employees feel that the work they’re doing is connected to their personal values and aspirations

One watchout our panelists flagged right away: Workplace connection isn’t about warm, fuzzy, “we’re-a-family” feelings. In fact, this rhetoric can be really toxic. Instead, connection at work is about how your organization shows up for your people across these four dimensions. It’s about the supports, processes, benefits, and cultural norms that your organization prioritizes. 

It’s this way of showing up that drives employees’ sense of belonging, psychological safety, and engagement levels. And, as a result, critical business outcomes like retention and productivity. Which begs the question: 

What do these best practices, supports, and structures look like when it comes to strengthening the manager and employee relationship?

How can you help managers strengthen their relationship with employees?

Just 38% of employees say their company effectively enables them to build authentic relationships with their manager. This should be a particularly motivating finding for organizational leaders because the manager-employee relationship is one of the more powerful dynamics in the workplace. 

According to research from Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. That means this particular relationship has a majorly outsized impact on overall employee engagement. 

Yet, many organizations struggle to get the right people into managerial roles and to set their managers up for success, leading to a stark manager-employee disconnect. And this disconnect has only worsened during the pandemic, with more and more individuals starting new jobs without ever meeting their manager in person. 

“This is such a unique circumstance for most people, and they're struggling to figure out how to address it,” says Lynda. “That’s why a lot of the conversations that I have with managers these days [as a coach] is helping them work through different ways of thinking about leadership.”

Thankfully, there are clear ways organizational and HR leaders can empower managers to connect with their direct reports in authentic ways. Here are a few suggestions from our panelists:

1. Acknowledge that your managers are juggling a lot of priorities.

Organizations ask a lot of our managers. We expect them to be empaths and problem solvers, leaders and mentors, communicators and mediators, all while juggling their day-to-day work. In short, there’s generally way too much on their plates—and this affects how well they can connect with employees. 

As Ken explains it: “I don't think employees leave bad managers. I think they leave disempowered and burnt out managers. Research says that as you get burned out, you treat people like inanimate objects. So if you burn out a manager, they stop paying attention to employees as anything other than a cog in the machine, and the whole thing breaks down.”

I don't think employees leave bad managers. I think they leave disempowered and burnt out managers. – Ken Matos

The solution? Start from a place of compassion and understanding. Check in with managers to benchmark where they’re at right now—and keep checking in. Recognize that they are under a lot of pressure to be good, effective managers and fulfill multiple roles, that they need your help to do.

Allyson encourages People leaders to help managers in their pursuit of more meaningful connections. “Let's help them close that [connection] gap. Let's not leave them feeling like they have to solve that on their own because…it's really hard to fill someone else's tank when your tank is also empty.”

2. Fix the employee connection system before you try to fix the manager.

If your managers are having a hard time connecting with employees, zoom out and look at the system of support (or lack thereof) before you zoom in to look at them as an individual.

“We constantly see this in gender studies and diversity conversations,” says Ken. “We talk about how to fix the person who's suffering. We never talk about what the organization is doing systemically that's creating the problem in the first place.”

Many organizations are not providing enough clarity around a manager’s role, responsibilities, and power, nor are they providing systems of support, resources, and training to help managers grow as managers. People leaders are left wondering: Am I allowed to give promotions and raises? How am I expected to show up for my direct reports? When and how should I recognize employees? 

When managers don’t know how to answer these types of questions, it can lead to frustration, employee burnout, and, ultimately, a lack of connection to their employees. 

If you’re not sure whether your managers are facing systemic problems, ask. Through structured conversations and surveys, figure out what challenges managers are facing and where they’re feeling blocked. Once you identify common themes, you can provide more personalized support—whether that’s in the form of training, coaching, or resources.

Learn what 400 HR leaders and 500 employees need to better connect at work.

Explore our platformGet the research.

3. Create shared spaces for managers.

A great way to support your managers is to create a space for them to connect with other managers across departments and teams. To come together with their peers. This gives them an opportunity to ask questions and air out their struggles with others who share similar experiences.

Lynda has first-hand experience with this approach. When she was a CEO, she led her team through a major business transformation. To help managers with this transition, she started a new initiative. 

“We created this community called the Leadership Council, where every frontline supervisor was invited to these events. And we would ask questions like: What are your pain points? What do we need to do to help you? What are the strategies that we as an organization need to put in place in order for us all to be successful?” 

We would ask questions like: What are your pain points? What do we need to do to help you? What are the strategies that we as an organization need to put in place in order for us all to be successful? – Lynda Tarras

As a direct result of this community, the company saw a significant improvement in employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and supervisory relationships within a year.

4. Drive manager-employee connection with meaningful recognition.

Our research on connection showed that meaningful employee recognition is an incredibly effective tool you can use to strengthen employee connection. 

A manager-driven recognition program, in particular, is powerful because it shows employees that their hard work is seen and valued by the person whose opinion they care about the most.  

Also, remember the four dimensions of connection we mentioned earlier? If you want to help employees connect to their own values and aspirations on a deeper level, experiential rewards are the way to go. Experiences are people-focused, have great “story value”, and help shape a person’s identity—all of which leads to greater employee fulfillment and feelings of connectedness . 

According to Allyson, these experiences as employee rewards don’t just create positive associations with your company; they also give managers more insight into their direct reports.

“When my team has the opportunity to do something that brings them joy outside of work, they come back and they share that experience with me. It helps me understand them. It helps me learn something about them. It helps me know what motivates them, what fills them up. And this helps me become a better manager.”

When my team has the opportunity to do something that brings them joy outside of work, they come back and they share that experience with me. – Allyson Tom

Start closing the manager-employee Connection Gap today. 

There’s a lot going on right now. Innovative organizational leaders and HR teams are working hard to tune into what their people need in this moment and evolve accordingly.

Empowering managers to better connect with their people may seem like one focus among many, but healthy manager-employee relationships are critical to business survival and success. We hope this conversation is an actionable jumping off point you can use to address the manager and employee Connection Gap.

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