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Are You a Lousy Manager?

Debra Sunohara

The HBR Daily Stat recently pointed to a post by Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO at Gallup – What Makes Workplaces Miserable.

The basis of the discussion was about the congressional hearings in the U.S. that were investigating the extremely low levels of employee engagement at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The findings presented to DHS executives was that there was a need for improved work-life balance, better benefits, and eliminating pay freezes.  All solutions that sound reasonable.

All nonsense, according to Mr. Clifton.  He reports that their years of research into management in the Public Service indicate that the single most important indicator of employee engagement is, “Does your manager care about your development?” 

And his opinion of the DHS employees?  “They’re miserable because… they have lousy managers and supervisors.”

It’s our experience that he is pretty close to the bull’s-eye with this analysis.


Fixing the Managers

Certainly focusing on development is a critical piece of the puzzle to solving employee engagement issues.  But there are also a great many other opportunities for managers and supervisors to improve themselves, and in turn develop a group of employees that meet and even exceed expectations…


  • Do you develop and support your employees’ career plans and learning opportunities?
  • Do you provide regular feedback, acknowledge success, and identify the need for improvement?
  • Do you deal with ineffective performance?
  • Do you coach, challenge, and provide your employees with opportunities for growth?
  • Do you have “teams” and know how to build them effectively?
  • Do you maintain control over the processes and projects you manage (without doing everything yourself)?
  • Do you delegate well?
  • Do you support and promote work-life balance?


  • Is your staff happy?Bored man
  • How do you engage your staff?
  • Do you solicit input and listen to your staff?
  • How do you inspire commitment?
  • Do you give credit where (and when) credit is due?
  • Do you encourage open constructive discussion of diverse perspectives?
  • Do you understand your employees - do you know what motivates them?
  • Do you recognize that a one-size fits all approach does not march your organization’s needs?
  • Do you embrace intergenerational differences and tailor your messages to each generation?

Strategic Thinking

Values and Ethics

  • Do your employees trust you and do you trust them in return?
  • Do you incorporate equitable practices into your HR planning?
  • Do you build and promote a safe and healthy, respectful organization, free of harassment and discrimination?
  • Do you act with transparency and fairness in all transactions, including staffing, contracting, and day-to-day activities?


Fix You

So, you have gone through the list and identified some areas where you think you could use some improvement.  But how do you know if your people agree with the things that you have in mind?

Ask them.

But only ask for feedback if you really want it.  Never ask for feedback if you have already made a decision about next steps.  And be open-minded about the recommendations you receive – we rarely learn much from the people who agree with us.

Act visibly on feedback and implement change.

Don’t shoot the messenger – reward constructive and respectful challenges.

Don’t play it safe – provide opportunities for risk taking and learning from failures.  Leave the door open to idea sharing and innovation.

But mostly, you have to care.





I agree with everything said by Debra on this subject. One other element which needs to be said concerns the organization’s culture and ethics. After 19 years in the private sector and 21 years in Canada’s federal system, the attitude, goals and focus of it’s executive and senior leaders are too often the barrier that prevents good leaders from doing what was highlighted by Debra. Those who have the courage of doing so pay the price, i.e. publicly ridiculed, humiliated, and fired. For the others, the sight of what happens to those with courage is a strong deterrent. For the private sector, return on investment for shareholders and for the public sector, political gain and power are significant barriers for middle-managers and supervisors to create a workplace of engagement, performance, and innovation.

By Jean-Francois Pinsonnault on 2012/05/01

Boy, does that short video clip (using two well-known Hollywood actors) bring back (bad) memories of writing briefing notes. Thankfully that’s behind me. If you treat people like dunces, then you’ll get dunce-like performance, not to mention horrendous morale and productivity.

It’s interesting that the backdrop for the article are the Congressional hearings into poor morale at DHS. This should be of utmost concern to Americans, considering the serious implications for the safety and security of the public. Big consequences.

By Jim Taggart on 2012/05/01

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Jean-Francois. Unfortunately the ‘barriers’ you have highlighted are common in all types of organizations. Creating a workplace environment that fosters innovation and employee engagement often requires a significant culture shift and the commitment of senior leaders and executives to make it happen.

By Debra Sunohara on 2012/05/02

Couldn’t agree with you more, Jim. This should also be of great concern to all GOC managers who, in my opinion, should be rethinking how they will manage a “demoralized work force” of public servants waiting to receive their notices while still trying to deliver quality services.

By Debra Sunohara on 2012/05/02

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