How to Build Effective Frontline Managers

By David Creelman and Steven Hunt, PhD and SPHR

It’s often said that employees don’t quit companies, they quit managers. Although there’s often a lot of truth in that statement, just pointing a finger of blame is not helpful. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there are specific things that managers do — or don’t do — to create employee dissatisfaction.

In many cases, frontline managers feel constrained by the limits of their authority. How can your frontline managers be expected to keep your people happy when their hands are tied by those in positions of greater authority? A frontline manager doesn’t control compensation, determine working conditions, set the targets, or write policies.

In other cases, managers don’t know how to act. Perhaps they haven’t been told that managing retention is important or taught how to do it; maybe they haven’t been given feedback as to how well they are doing.

By giving your frontline managers the tools, training, and latitude they need to hold onto your best hourly workers, you can expediently improve retention, reduce the drag on your business caused by needless turnover, and save a substantial amount of money in the process.

A recipe for creating bad managers

While some managers are born bad, others have inadequacy thrust upon them. Here are some common reasons why good managers go bad:

  • Too wide a span of control. A manager who has too many direct reports cannot give the direction, feedback, and support needed to get people to stay. Effective management requires the ability to regularly talk to employees on a one-to-one basis. Managers who have dozens of direct reports do not have enough time to truly act as managers to their employees.
  • Too much pressure. Everyone is under pressure, but when organizations put too much emphasis on short-term targets they can unintentionally encourage bad or even unethical behavior, which will eventually affect all employees. Managers who are forced to achieve short-term results by requiring employees to work long hours with little rest can cause long-term losses by creating employee burnout, resent- ment, and turnover.
  • Too much administrative work. A hefty load of administrative work comes along with any management role, but organi- zations should try to minimize management time spent on paperwork in favor of time spent managing people.
  • Poor leadership. One reason managers may display poor behaviors is because they report to senior level managers who model these behaviors. If your district managers are abusive and insensitive to your store managers, for example, do not be surprised if your store managers pass this behavior on to their frontline staff.

While these are tough issues, they are not irresolvable ones. Excessive control can be mitigated by creating the role of Team Leader to handle some elements of supervision. Managers of managers should be alerted to cases where too much pressure is interfering with performance. Technology can greatly reduce administrative work.

Finally, the focus on performance quality should be applied consistently and diligently up the entire line leadership chain — from the entry level hourly employees all the way to the regional vice president.

Knowing what makes people stay

It’s frequently instructive to ask a flip-side question to gain a new insight. We’ve discussed why employees leave, but let’s probe into the matter of why they stay. The answers are actually not that mysterious.

“He was willing to work with my schedule, and he was patient as I learned the job. He had no trouble sitting down and taking time to train me,” said Kate, an office clerk. Even when there are temptations to leave, people keep jobs, for reasons including:

  • Good pay
  • Good benefits
  • Career opportunity
  • Convenient commute
  • Flexible hours
  • A supportive boss who takes time to show an interest in employees
  • Good workplace atmosphere (friends at work)
  • Enjoyable work (including bonds to customers and clients)

Go through this list to see which levers are available within your company. You might be able to make a case that higher compensation is a good investment because it will reduce turnover, as is the case at Costco, but most managers don’t have that option. Still, every manager can strive to be supportive and encourage a good workplace atmosphere.

Ideally, this feedback from Jim, an employee in a store that made and sold trophies, is the kind you want to hear: “It was a great experience; my boss was funny and laid back. There was a lot of respect and autonomy, and there was always something to learn.”

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Handing out the tools to retain people

You can help your frontline managers retain your hourly workers by providing the latitude and tools they need to do so. One obvious tool is incentives. If a manager has the latitude to buy the team a pizza, that may help buy loyalty. However, the organizations that do empower managers to give out incentives are usually quite timid about it.

What would happen if you upped the ante and gave your managers the authority to give exceptional rewards from time to time? For example, one casual dining chain arranged karaoke competitions between restau- rants and flew its employees on the top teams to a competition in a resort town. They discovered that some employees stayed with the company largely so they could participate in this annual competition.

Other companies set up programs to provide financial assistance to employees who apply for company-sponsored scholarships and grants. Just knowing that the company offers this sort of support to its hourly staff can be a powerful tool to increase employee loyalty.

Benefits are routinely cited as a tool for retention. But frequently, employees are not aware of the benefits their companies offer or of their value. Managers need tools, such as a well-designed handbook or a web page, so they can easily show employees what benefits are available, who is eligible, and how to enroll.

Research has shown that hourly employees who actively participate in company benefit programs are less likely to quit. Therefore, frontline managers should proactively encourage employees to take advantage of the benefits and support the initiative to retain employees through their words and deeds.

For example, they should help employees overcome inertia (as in “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea, I should sign up…”) and guide workers to take the steps they need to take to get on board. Being proactive shows hourly workers that the boss really does care, and simultaneously gives the person an increase in total rewards.

Excerpted from Creating the Workforce — and Results — You Seek: A Thought Leadership Anthology on Workforce Management from the Workforce Institute at Kronos. Copyright 2010 by Kronos Incorporated. Reprinted with permission from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. Based mainly in Toronto and partly in Kuala Lumpur, he’s best known for his research on the latest issues in human resources.

He works with think tanks such as Talent Tech Labs (New York), Works Institute (Tokyo), Workforce Institute (Boston) and CRF (London). He’s collaborated with leading academics such as Henry Mintzberg (leadership development), Ed Lawler (“Built to Change”) and John Boudreau (future of work).

His books include The CMO of People: Manage employees like customers with an immersive predictable experience that drives productivity and performance with GrandRound’s CHRO Peter Navin; and Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment with John Boudreau (USC) and Ravin Jesuthasan (Willis Towers Watson).

You can connect to Mr. Creelman on LinkedIn