From the cashier at the checkout of Target to the home health aid checking in on a patient after surgery, frontline workers are the face of many organizations from retail to healthcare to food service. In the best cases, when frontline workers are engaged, supported with the tools they need to be successful, and well-trained, they are invaluable ambassadors. They can create strong bonds with customers, predict issues that could affect the customer experience, and provide value in a wide variety of ways. Unfortunately, many frontline workers are not so engaged – an issue that often has its roots in poor management.
In Work Institute’s 2017 survey of why employees leave their jobs, management behavior is the third most commonly cited reason for quitting.
Gallup’s engagement surveys give us an even stronger reason for focusing on managers as a way of increasing engagement. Their research found that when engagement scores vary across an organization, 70% of the difference is directly attributable to direct supervisors.
While hiring right and providing learning and growth opportunities are also key to keeping retention low, engagement is a key piece of the retention puzzle and one that has a strong correlation with business results. And engagement is almost always a result of how managers, particularly frontline managers, do at their jobs.
At most companies, new managers are trained through one or two-day workshops that are rarely effective at producing the kind of managers that keep employees happy and motivated. These programs tend to focus on basic skills and required processes (HR compliance, performance review forms, scheduling software, etc.). This type of training encourages managers to focus on the tactical elements, but often fails to give them insight into the larger context of their work, such as the company's vision, mission, and goals, let alone provide them with essential soft skills such as coaching and communication.
The challenges that face frontline supervisors are unique. In addition to juggling complex schedules, a wide variety of backgrounds and capabilities, and the ever-changing needs of the organization, frontline leaders also often have a window into their team members’ personal struggles, hearing about relationship issues, transportation challenges, and overdue bills, and missing shifts or distracted on the job.
This leaves them squeezed between policy and empathy. When a great employee comes in late multiple times because their car breaks down and the bus schedule isn’t aligned with their work schedule, what should that supervisor do? These are not issues that are typically covered in a standard management training curriculum.
In 2016, leadership assessment and development firm DDI found that empathy is the skill most closely correlated with management success. Empathy and emotional intelligence training have become increasingly popular as organizations look to build strong connections with their customers and to create a more supportive environment for employees. Employers such as Ford Motor Company, Cisco Systems, and Breakthru Beverage Group have invested heavily in empathy training.
This new focus is showing results. In 2014, Lady Geek, a UK based consulting firm that had been focusing on women in technology created their first Global Empathy Index: a ranking of the top 20 firms globally on an empathy scale that included metrics such as ethics, culture, brand perception, accounting infractions, and more. Organizations who ranked in the top 10 for empathy generated 50% more net income per employee than the bottom 10.
In addition to empathy training, many organizations are now focusing heavily on the “manager as coach” model, incorporating concepts such as active listening, career growth planning, asking vs. telling, and other more soft-skills oriented learning programs.
Forward-thinking organizations are also being more proactive about including frontline managers, as well as all other stakeholders, in communications around strategy, culture, values, and goals. This emphasis on aligning decision-making at all levels with the company culture and values pays significant dividends as higher level leaders don’t need to be as prescriptive about the “right” behaviors, but can point to organizational values to help shape decisions throughout the entire company.
Training frontline leaders has benefits that ripple throughout the organization. A single unskilled manager can demotivate an entire team, and that lack of engagement can easily spread, dragging down the performance of the business unit and creating a negative culture. But when supervisors are skilled and supported, they create a positive effect across the organization, promoting engagement, increasing retention, improving customer experiences, and more.