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A Manager Who Talks To You Is Better Than a Leader Who Doesn't

The shelves of America’s largest bookstores are being continually stocked with new books about leadership. It has become a national preoccupation—management consultants, corporate trainers and public workshop providers are very busy. America is hungry for leaders and there is a leadership theory that fits every perspective. Every company seeking to turn its managers into leaders is going to find a consultant or workshop who’s offering suits their taste.

If you browse the bookshelves at Borders, you are mesmerized by the catchy titles and enticing themes of books purporting to teach you how to become a “leader.” Leader is an auspicious word that connotes skills and abilities that are noble and worthy of systematic pursuit. There are so many choices, you don’t know which book to read and it is hard to decide if one or the other book is right or wrong. They all seem to make sense, but it seems that a good leader has skills, assets, traits and abilities that are superhuman. Can one realistically expect to learn how to do and be all these wonderful things—a superleader?

The books I find most optimistic are the ones that try to teach average guys like me to be a transformational leader.I may be overly skeptical, but I don’t think you can teach someone how to inspire others, or to be visionary. Some people just have the charisma—you want to follow them.They exude moral authority…they have values…they have character…and you can identify with the vision that they so convincingly articulate.

I think most of us can be good transactional leaders—we can work within existing organizational structures—interacting with our direct reports in ways that encourage them to engage in the organizations mission and direction. We can interact with direct reports—have encouraging conversations about their work—about the things they are doing well and how things might be improved the next time. You don’t have to be inspirational to be a good manager.

The intent of leadership development is to train leaders to deal with people in ways that lead to improved profitability. As mundane and mercenary as that sounds, it is true. The purpose is performance. Behind all the leadership consulting and training and writing is the intent to increase a manager’s skill in eliciting high levels of performance from subordinates. All the noble words and high-sounding language seeks to improve manager and supervisor motivational skill—to improve how well they induce employees to meet and exceed organizational performance goals.

I have some good news for anyone confused and demotivated by all these choices and theories. Several organizational psychologists spent many months following and observing managers doing their jobs—in the field, on site. They shadowed them everywhere and recorded everything they did; they were trying to discover what effective managers did that ineffective managers did not do and visa versa. If a leader is someone whose subordinates outperform and over achieve—consistently and predictably, then we need to see what these managers do and say that is different. We don’t need theories, we need facts. How do effective leaders behave?

In my last blog entry, I presented a more effective model for positively reinforcing one’s employees for extra effort, improvement and good results. Positive reinforcement tends to increase employee willingness to exert effort, but if it is not delivered properly, reinforcement comes across as staged and manipulative. Research findings indicate that the best way to deliver positive reinforcement is naturally and casually, during a work dialogue with an employee about their job. Short verbal expressions that verify good work, improvement or some other valued added behavior are superior to longer scripted descriptions. Saying thinks like, “looks good,” or “that will work,” or “let’s keep that up,” all serve as reinforcers if delivered in the context of a “give-and-take” work discussion.

In addition, supervisors and managers who “monitor” employee progress—check with employees to see how thing are going—have better performing units than those who don’t. For one thing, it provides more opportunities to make positive or corrective comments about the employee’s performance, and there is a definite correlation between the number of times employees get consequences (positive statements about value added behavior and results or corrective comments about things they need to change or improve) for their work and how well they perform. You can’t say positive things about good work if you don’t know it happened. That’s why the best leaders tend to do a lot of work monitoring; they stop and look at each employee’s job—doing visual inspections and asking questions about progress.

The research results that are so promising tell us that these behaviors seem to get results irrespective of other factors like ability and personality. That is, supervisors and managers who check on their employees, look at their work and discuss their performance—making positive comments when appropriate and corrective comments in a balanced, give-and-take dialogue—have high performing departments irrespective of personality factors that leadership theories describe as essential to good leadership.

This is not a free ride to leadership excellence, but it provides hope for those of us who would otherwise not fit into the leader paradigm described by theorists or who feel they cannot change themselves to align their abilities with those experts require. An average manager or supervisor can begin to improve their effect on employee performance today by simply taking the time to stop by and check in with the employee, review the job, have an honest discussion about the good, the bad and the ugly and watch as performance improves.

Corporations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to teach managers and frontline supervisors to be “leaders.” One gets the impression that being a manager or supervisor is of lesser value—that one must evolve from these mundane skill sets into the august stature of leader. Real leaders are rare (in my humble opinion); almost as rare are good managers and supervisor.Since I think that one can learn to be a good manager or supervisor, I think that is where we need to be putting the corporate training budget.