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by Bruce Tulgan

If you want your organization’s employees to work more productively, pay more attention to them.

During the economic crisis of 2009, the most effective business strategy turned out to be increased supervision and management of employees.

Research by RainmakerThinking shows that organizations that combined three effective strategies during the recession had better financial results than others:

1. Cost cutting. This included eliminating staff, space and resources.

2. Innovation. Organizations found new methods of sourcing, designing, producing, promoting and delivering their products and services.

3. Increased supervision. Employees got more one-on-one training, direction and feedback from their managers.

Yet if organizations employed only one of those strategies, they were most financially successful when it focused on greater supervision of employees. Organizations that stepped up their hands-on management found that they were able to reward high-performing staff with in-demand perks like flexibility and telework.

Real pay for performance

Managers who started paying closer attention to who was doing what—and why and where—were talking to their direct reports more and following up more often to keep track of whose performance beat expectations. Because they were paying more attention, managers found they were in a much better position to push rewards toward people who were doing more and doing it better.

The result: They started practicing real performance-based compensation. Pay raises and bonuses became earned, not automatic. Managers who never allowed people to work from home all of a sudden were agreeing to let their stars telecommute on occasion—because they were paying enough attention to know which employees were likely to be productive teleworkers.

Paying attention is a great way to collect data: These managers know which employees are going above and beyond and deserve more money and perks.

End of ‘undermanagement’

Most of the focus by the comp and benefits community on performance-based rewards has been on changing the compensation system. Yet even the best system will fail miserably if managers are not doing the hard work of spelling out expectations, of making the quid pro quo explicit and of truly monitoring the production that’s within the control of individual employees.

The recession-induced realization that organizations fare better when supervisors make their expectations clear to employees, monitor their progress and evaluate their outcomes has made a dent in what I call the “undermanagement epidemic.” Managers are finally getting back to the basics of managing.

HR pros can push this positive step even further by recognizing it as a training challenge. Most management training programs have gravitated away from hands-on supervisory skills in favor of teaching true leadership. Training sessions put fire in the bellies of up-and-coming managers and teach them to inspire people.

In addition, what they should be doing is teaching managers how to help their employees plan, to talk through the work and to remind them of best practices before they begin a task. That’s missing in nine of 10 management relationships.

There’s no shortcut to making this happen. So don’t stop training people. Do start pushing your organization to commit to a culture of strong leadership. Build back-to-basics management training into the development process every step of the way, for leaders at every level.

It’s a strategy that will work not only in times of economic crisis, but during the recovery and after the eventual return to prosperity. Managers who already have reconnected with basic supervisory practices will find it hard to backslide later—because tried-and-true techniques have proved their effectiveness during the most trying of times.


Author: Bruce Tulgan is the founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, a training and consulting firm in New Haven, Conn. His most recent book is It’s OK to Be the Boss. Contact him at (203) 772-2002.

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