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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Are Leaders Lacking? Employees Think So!

A study of employees reveals many leaders lack essential skills.
Are Leaders Lacking? Employees Think So!

As organizations continue to adapt to the complexity and dynamic demands of the global economy, one aspect of the 21st century workplace remains unchanged: the necessity of strong boss/employee relationships.

To explore the current strength of these relationships, we partnered with Harris Interactive to survey 1,279 workers around the world to tell us about their everyday interactions with their leaders. The results of this survey are captured in our new study, Lessons for Leaders from the People Who Matter: How Employees Around the World View Their Leaders.

Here we discuss some of the findings from this revealing study.

Workers Aren’t Confident in Their Bosses’ Skills

One important intangible of the manager/employee relationship is the level of respect employees have for their leaders—the belief that their boss is a skilled leader worthy of respect and loyalty. Our survey revealed that this is an area where leaders not only fall short—they fall a long way short. One in three respondents (34 percent) said they don’t consider their manager to be effective at his or her job.

By any definition, a competent leader must be able to motivate employees to give their best effort and do their best work. But again, more than one-third of employees say their leaders are deficient in this category, as well. When asked if they feel motivated to give their best to their leader, 37 percent said only sometimes or never.

Predictably, this dim view of leader capability contributes to turnover. Two out of every five employees (39 percent) surveyed said they have left a job primarily because of their leader, while more than half (55 percent) said they have considered leaving a job because of their leader.

Workers Often Feel Hurt and Demotivated By Their Bosses’ Actions

Being a leader is a tough job that many do well. But on the other hand it seems a great many don’t. When asked if their leaders handle workplace conflict effectively, 42 percent of employees surveyed for our study responded either only sometimes or never. Similarly, 35 percent responded only sometimes or never when asked if their leaders listen to their work-related concerns. This is important, of course, because listening has to be the first step in addressing any problem.

Additionally, according to the survey, 54 percent involve employees in making decisions that affect the employee’s own, or the employee’s team’s, work. Those decisions are made without much explanation, either: 43 percent of employees say that their bosses rarely, if ever, explain the rationale for their decisions.

Also troubling is that so many bosses (34 percent) are cited for most of the time or always singling out certain employees as their favorites—a practice that poisons morale, sabotages team effectiveness, and discourages those who aren’t the boss’ favorites from putting forth their best effort.

Leaders Are Lacking in Fundamental Leadership Skills

DDI has conducted research and worked with leading organizations around the world for more than 40 years, during which time we have developed a deep understanding of what makes leaders effective. We have found that one of the most important and defining traits of an effective leader, at any organizational level, is his or her consistent use of what we refer to as Interaction EssentialsSM. Interaction EssentialsSM are those behaviors that enable a leader to address both the personal and practical needs of the individuals with whom he or she is interacting, whether it’s a formal discussion (e.g., a performance review), or an informal discussion such as a coaching situation. The Interaction Essentials that meet personal needs include those related to listening, empathy, and knowing how to best involve and support others. Practical needs, meanwhile, are met through the consistent use of an interaction process that makes sure that the tasks at hand are achieved with the maximum efficiency.

We asked employees about leaders’ use of the Interaction Essentials. Their responses (Figure 1) point to many of the deficiencies that leaders have in critical leadership skill areas.

Figure 1: Leaders’ Use of Interaction Essentials
Figure 1: Leaders’ Use of Interaction Essentials

Consistent use of the Interaction Essentials is key to leader effectiveness. Given the very high proportion of employees feeling that their leader only sometimes or never uses these essentials, it is no wonder employees often feel that their leader is doing more harm than good.

These skills aren’t called essential for no reason. Employees of leaders who focus on the Interaction Essentials consider their leaders more effective, are more motivated, and are more likely to be productive.

“My Current Boss Just Can’t Compare with My Best-Ever Boss”

We asked employees to compare their current boss with the individual they would identify as their best-ever leader. We asked a simple but powerful question: “Thinking about the best manager you ever had, what did he/she do that made them the best?” Respondents consistently told us that what set their best-ever leader apart was a propensity for recognition and for providing the right degree of support without stepping in and taking over. They also said that their best-ever leader was adept at involving team members when making decisions (Figure 2).

Figure 2: What Leaders Do That Makes Them the Best
Figure 2: What Leaders Do That Makes Them the Best

Perhaps not surprisingly, employees stated clearly they are not looking for their leader to be a friend: “Took time to socialize with me” and “Asked about my hobbies and interests” came at the bottom of the list of behaviors that set best-ever leaders apart.

The survey results revealed significant gaps in performance between current and best-ever leaders (Figure 3). The best leaders are consistent and demonstrate positive leadership behaviors and, as the research demonstrates, employees respond by being more motivated.

Figure 3: The Impact of Leader Quality
Figure 3: The Impact of Leader Quality

The biggest gap in performance between employees’ current leaders and their best-ever leaders is in helping employees be more productive. Only 56 percent of employees reported that their current leader helps them be more productive, whereas 79 percent reported that their best-ever leader helped them be more productive.


Patterson S. (Pete) Weaver is DDI’s senior vice president of leadership solutions and chief learning officer.
Simon Mitchell is DDI’s European marketing director.

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