Who’s the Boss?

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One of the most often repeated punch lines from Gallup’s famous Q12 survey of employee engagement is that employees join companies, but leave their immediate supervisor. In other words, people mostly talk about the company when asked what attracted to them to a particular job, but they mostly cite issues with their immediate manager when asked why they decided to leave a particular job.

In their 1999 business best seller, First Break all the Rules, Mark Buckingham and Curt Coffman explain the origin of the 12 questions that comprise the Gallup survey and then lay out findings from in-depth interviews, attempting to identify what managers of a highly-engaged workforce do differently.

Buckingham and Coffman support the claim that the manager is the lynchpin of our relationship to our workplace by pointing to wide variations in Q12 scores from different business units within the same company. There’s a strong intuitive appeal to the focus on the relationship between an employee and his or her immediate supervisor. When I run down the list of bosses I’ve had in my working life, it’s nearly impossible for me to separate how I felt about the work from how I felt about my manager. Notably, I still have a boss, but I no longer connect how I feel about my job to how I feel about my manager. For sure, something has changed about me, but I’ve started wondering if there’s also something changing about work.

One of our clients has asked for a training workshop on how to effectively lead in a matrix structure. Most of the organizations I work with these days have ambiguous reporting structures that force people to collaborate across traditional functional hierarchies. It’s not unusual for someone in a large, global organization to have responsibilities to a region, a business unit, and a function all at the same time. Furthermore, people often interact with colleagues and supervisors through technology rather than face-to-face. Matrix structures raise two basic questions for leaders: (1) How do I collaborate and still influence the way work gets done? and (2) When the organizational chart can’t answer the question, how do we decide who’s accountable for what?

One consequence of matrix-reporting relationships is that the work team is quickly becoming the basic unit of organizational structure. Baby Boomer and Gen-X managers seem to be struggling with the ambiguity of matrix structures and the proliferation of teamwork. On the other hand, early evidence from colleges and universities is that the millennials who are just now entering the workforce are natural collaborators and thrive in environments where consensus is valued.

As it becomes harder to tell who exactly is the immediate supervisor, we may have to let go of the conventional wisdom about focusing on how to be a good boss. As a new generation of team oriented workers join our organizations, we may have to think more systemically about what influences employee engagement.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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