The Sad State of the American Manager

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ashlie Storms’s career had been progressing nicely. She had worked her way up from an entry-level teller position at Wachovia Bank to lead teller and then teller manager. When the merger with Wells Fargo happened, the West Milford, N.J., employee transitioned to service manager. That was 2011. Initially, it seemed like a great opportunity except for the fact that under the new combined company, the pressure to sell from management became more intense. Employees were being pushed into aggressive tactics that Storms said went against her fundamental beliefs. 

As she told the New York Times:  “We would have conference calls with regional presidents and managers coaching us on how to word our selling points so the customer can’t say no. I felt like a cheat. I started losing sleep and got nauseous every Sunday night over the start of the next workweek.”

Revelations of the sham accounts scandal and illicit banking practices at Wells Fargo have made headlines recently, particularly in the wake of CEO John Stumpf’s resignation in October 2016. But what is less discussed and perhaps more sadly familiar is the description of the negative work environment created by management and the effect that such an atmosphere has both on the employee and on the company. 

These days, Americans are working longer and harder than ever before, but for many the experience is one of dread. So common are stories of high-stress workplaces, where employees routinely suffer negative impacts to their health, that they are met with a shrug, as if to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. With no safety net, many employees don’t do their best work as they don’t feel comfortable taking risks or developing new ideas. 

The hidden costs of a bad work environment and bad managers

Indeed, this hidden cost to companies is huge, just in terms of health and productivity alone. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is lost every year from the U.S. economy (about 550 million workdays) because of stress on the job. Workplace stress alone leads to a 50 percent increase in voluntary turnover as well. Furthermore, for high-pressure companies, healthcare expenses run nearly 50 percent greater than at other organizations. 

The bottom line is that all of us need to make work better.  

And that means focusing on where the problem starts – with the managers. Consider, for example, a recent survey by the recruiting giant Monster, which found that 30 percent of employees found their bosses to be “horrible.” Or, the 2015 Gallup study that found that only 35 percent of managers are engaged in their work but account for least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.

And that disengagement comes with a price. In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, and produced 60 percent more errors and defects. Companies with low employee engagement scores experienced 18 percent lower productivity, 16 percent lower profitability, and 65 percent lower share price over time.

The impact of good managers


Managers have the single biggest impact on the productivity of employees and their teams, yet few companies focus on the need to develop frontline or secondary-level supervisors in the art of management. Mostly, experts say, that’s because it’s not an immediate priority in an era where managers are continually pressed for time, often jumping from meeting to meeting and issue to issue. Alan Patterson, a noted management guru and consultant, says, “It used to be managers could take employees under their wing and develop them steadily, almost like an apprenticeship, giving them feedback, teaching them the ropes.” But these days, he notes, management often amounts to little more than task-based and deadline-focused direction, which does nothing to inspire, involve, or make employees feel accountable for results in the greater picture. 

That’s why, more than ever, the time is now for companies to reconsider their views about what good management is—particularly the importance of reimagining a manager as a developer of talent. Not simply for the sake of the employee, where companies would naturally improve their work environment, but also for the return it can have on the bottom line in terms of productivity, talent acquisition, and leadership development. 

Where to start as a HR leader?

ATD has developed a new, research-backed framework focused on this idea that great managers develop their employees. The model, based on a survey of more than 300 talent development professionals, considered the most important qualities that managers exhibit when it comes to engaging and involving their teams. 

The results of the survey found that great managers consistently demonstrate five key qualities—accountability, collaboration, communication, engagement, and listening and observing (ACCEL). Yet few organizations focus on the importance of these skills. According to the report, ACCEL: The Skills That Make a Winning Manager, only 38 percent of organizations gave frontline managers the opportunity to develop proficiency in communication skills, while only 33 percent did for listening and assessing skills. 

Unlike other management frameworks, which might focus on hard skills—managing budgets, technical knowledge, and the like—the ATD ACCEL Framework focuses heavily on the importance of the so-called soft skills, such as communication and feedback, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and other qualities that go a long way toward improving the workplace environment. 

To learn more, download the free ATD whitepaper on ACCEL: The Skills That Make a Winning Manager or visit ATD’s Management Resource Center



“Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive,” by Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, Harvard Business Review. 

State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, 2015. x

“Workplace Stress,” The American Institute of Stress.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Tim Ito is a digital and content marketing expert and former vice president at the Association for Talent Development, overseeing the content division. He also teaches digital marketing and ran the content marketing group for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Ito is a former senior editor and producer at AltaVista and and was a reporter and writer for U.S. News & World Report. He resides in Arlington, Virginia.

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