Are “lazy” managers – or misguided organizations – to blame for high turnover?

by Burl Stamp

It is rare that I disagree with the premise or findings of a Harvard Business Review article. They are generally well-researched by top scholars and thinkers on issues facing businesses today.

But when I saw the headline, “Don’t Let Lazy Managers Drive Away Your Top Performers,” I was skeptical. Then I read the first paragraph of the article:

“Many people believe that being a good manager only requires common sense, and that it is therefore easy to be one. If this were true, good managers would be commonplace at all levels of more organizations, and as a result, employee engagement and retention would be high. However, only 13% of workers worldwide are engaged at work, and employee turnover rates in the United States are at a 17-year high. As these statistics suggest, either most managers lack common sense, or good management is, in fact, quite challenging in practice.”

Good management is, indeed, very challenging. In the organizations we work with, we seldom find managers who are lazy. What we do find are managers who are ill-prepared to effectively engage and mentor the employees who work for them, especially in today’s changing workforce with record-low unemployment.

While the headline may have been exaggerated, most of the content of the article accurately portrays the state of employee engagement in today’s organizations. Two specific symptoms the authors cite resonate: 1) managers have a tendency to blame low performance and turnover on employees rather than on themselves or the organization, and 2) managers usually look for quick fixes to complex retention problems.

To be most effective, managers need a well-defined framework to improve employee engagement that focuses on building key leadership competencies.

At Stamp&Chase, we’ve developed the T.E.A.M. model, which focuses on four distinct, proactive sets of effective leadership practices:


Here’s how the elements and underlying competencies of the T.E.A.M. model help make managers more effective in engaging frontline staff:

Make teaching a key leadership responsibility

Effective leaders are great teachers, and great teachers are always learning. As a teacher, the manager offers the expertise and wisdom that shapes the course of the group’s success. Of course, servant leaders also learn from the knowledge and insights of frontline employees to make the team stronger.

At all levels, strong leaders are highly visible. They engage in meaningful conversations with both staff and customers, host open forum that bring together cross-functional teams and plan interactive work group meetings to share information and gain feedback.

Empower staff to be successful

At the heart of all contemporary performance improvement methodologies, including LEAN and Six Sigma, is the idea that better solutions emerge when you involve the people closest to the work. Large, complex projects often involve cross-functional groups drawn from many departments. However, strong work team leaders should also pursue focused intradepartmental projects that include employees in decision-making.

Create aligned, team-specific goals

Most organizations have become very adept at setting well-defined, measurable goals at the corporate level. But to more effectively involve staff up-and-down the organization in the achievement of these broad goals, work groups should also have more tactical, action-oriented goals at the frontline.

Setting more specific, behavior-focused aspirations at the work group level is just the first step in using goals to more effectively involve employees in improvement efforts. Consistently tracking, reporting and discussing progress with the team helps strengthen the group’s sense of purpose and resolve in achieving success.

Mentor employees through balanced, consistent feedback

Mentoring staff to improve individual and collective performance is, arguably, a manager’s most important job. Too often, leaders associate the practice of giving feedback only with providing negative or constructive criticism.  But to improve morale and build high-performance cultures, managers should also use positive feedback to reinforce success and reward great results.

In addition to creating a culture of recognition and appreciation, balanced feedback helps employees more readily embrace constructive criticism. Feedback that only points out mistakes or short-comings is demoralizing – and aggravates turnover, especially among top performers.

Middle managers have some of the toughest jobs in any organization. To help them be most successful, companies must provide the tools and professional development they need to tackle their most challenging responsibilities – improving employee engagement and retention. Indeed, some managers may be reluctant to adopt and leverage these critical strategies. Only then is the label “lazy” maybe fair.