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What Do People Want From
Their Frontline Leaders?

The Frontline Leader Project

These findings are from our ongoing Frontline Leader Project. The project explores research behind the anxiety of frontline leaders, including their path to leadership, the challenges they face, and the expectations placed on them by other people.

In this portion of our research, we analyzed recent survey data from over 1,000 leaders, executives, and individual contributors to gather authentic perspectives from the people who surround frontline managers. A better grasp of these feelings will lead us closer to understanding both the root of anxiety and the secret to success for frontline leaders.

Reasons for Leaving a Job: You Make Me Quit

Our research proved the old trope: “People leave managers, not companies.” In fact, only 12 percent of people are among the lucky few who have never quit—or at least seriously considered quitting—because of their manager. A full 57 percent of people have left a job specifically because of their manager. Furthermore, 14 percent of people have had to leave multiple jobs because of management. Another third of people (32 percent) haven’t yet quit because of their boss, but have seriously considered it.

What was it about managers that made people quit? Most often, people said their manager did not show respect for their work, was unprofessional, or didn’t listen to their concerns. In addition, many people cited a lack of empathy, which is a key principle of good leadership and an important factor in leadership success. Luckily, while empathy is a skill that takes practice to master, it can be developed to help leaders become more effective.

“I couldn’t get on the same page as my manager. I was going to quit unless I was promoted and, luckily, I was promoted into a job with a different, better manager. That’s the only reason I stayed.”—Technical manager, manufacturing

Reasons for Leaving a Job: You Make Me Quit

Drowning in Difficult Conversations

Senior leaders say the number one weakness of their organizations’ leaders is their ability to have difficult performance discussions with direct reports. They also rank leaders low on their ability to coach others and engage and inspire their teams. And the senior leaders are right; frontline leaders agree that they are weak in these areas. They cite having difficult conversations with direct reports as the area where they need the most help.

These findings are reflected in how individual contributors view their performance reviews. Conducted annually in most organizations, 76 percent of direct reports say these conversations are a positive experience. Direct reports say their managers are good at maintaining self-esteem and giving clarity on direction, but struggle with coaching for improvement.

One way to solve the problem is to have more regular coaching conversations. Frequent coaching enables people to make small adjustments to their work to optimize results over time. It’s also significantly less pressure than waiting to have one big conversation at the end of the year, which may also be tied to promotion and compensation decisions.

“As a newer manager, I never expected how much work management was going to be. From performance reviews to one-on-ones to on-the-fly visits at my door, conversations with my reports are how I spend a good part of my day. It’s also proven to be my biggest challenge.”—Data science manager

Drowning in Difficult Conversations

Time is of the Essence

Nine out of ten individual contributors feel stressed at work. By far, their two biggest problems are finding the time to get everything done and navigating organizational politics. This mimics frontline managers’ own greatest stressors, suggesting that the same sources of stress affecting managers are reflected in their team.

The struggle to find time is also leading individual contributors to do more to manage the workload. On average, individual contributors are working 46 hours a week. However, senior leaders may not realize how many hours people are putting in on the job, especially since they only expect managers to work about 45 hours a week. The need to help people prioritize their time and effort is rapidly becoming one of the most pressing issues for leaders not only at the frontline, but every level of the organization.

“I feel buried every day at work. I come in and try to keep my head above water, but it’s almost impossible to catch up when my day has ended, and I still didn’t complete the first task I had on my list from last Thursday.”—Software engineer

Time Is of the Essence

Tell Me Why

As companies continue to focus on driving employee engagement, one of the big missed opportunities is leaders involving their teams in their decisions. Though leaders meet frequently with their direct reports, they are not excelling at sharing their rationale or involving their reports in key decisions.

Individual contributors indicate their leaders do not regularly explain why decisions are made (51 percent) and 60 percent are not regularly involved in key decisions affecting their work. This lack of involvement can have a significant negative effect on engagement as people don’t understand the purpose behind what they’re doing.

Leaders on the frontline, like all levels, need to balance involving individuals on their teams without removing responsibility or ownership. Individual contributors praise their leaders for allowing them the freedom to do their job, but if they are not regularly involved in making decisions or do not understand why changes are being made that impact them, they are at greater risk of becoming disengaged.

“I would never call my current supervisor a micromanager, but she doesn’t involve me in anything much other than to tell me what my next project is going to be.”—Financial analyst

Tell Me Why

You Know We Need Support, but Why Don’t We Get It?

Senior leaders say those at the frontline have four barriers inhibiting their success: they have too many responsibilities, are left to their own devices to figure out their jobs, they don’t have enough time to develop their skills, and many weren’t suited to be leaders to begin with. While senior leaders recognize their frontline leaders' struggle to find the time and get the support they need to make development happen, 98 percent say leadership training is a worthwhile investment. Similarly, 78 percent of senior managers say leadership skills are essential to being effective and they wish they had more guidance when they stepped into their first leadership role.

These senior leaders also admit knowing it is their responsibility to support the development of first-level managers. Research from the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report shows how crucial manager involvement is to encouraging development. The report reveals the number one way learners discover the skills they need to improve or progress in their roles is when their manager provides specific direction or guidance.

“My manager suggested I get signed up for leadership training, but when it came down to it, I didn’t feel I could dedicate the time to attend with all my other responsibilities.”—Customer service manager, insurance

You Know We Need It, but Why Don’t We Get It?


How to Improve Employee Engagement

Purpose is important for all generations in the workforce, but perhaps even more so for older generations than it is for Millennials. Thirty-one percent of Millennials say they want their work to have a positive impact on the world, compared to 41 percent of Gen X and nearly half (49 percent) of Baby Boomers.

Senior leaders said that engaging and inspiring their teams is one of first-level leaders’ greatest weaknesses and "inspired" shows up very low on the list of words direct reports select for how their manager makes them feel daily. While frontline leaders aren’t great at inspiring their teams, they can act on the five factors that individual contributors say drives them to be better at work. By demonstrating how their direct reports have an impact, helping them own their work, respecting their efforts, helping them step into leadership, and acknowledging that money isn’t a high driver, and recognition is, they’ll be tapping into the things that matter most to their teams, jump starting their engagement.

“It took me several years in management to learn how to inspire my team. Ironically, I learned it from one of my direct reports. He was walking out of the office one day with me when I was very down and told me what a good job I was doing despite the hardships our team had faced. That meant the world to me at that moment and really inspired me to continue on.”—Shift manager, consumer products

How to Improve Employee Engagement
Kudos to Bosses

Kudos for Bosses

In closing, while direct reports aren’t shy about pointing out the weaknesses of their bosses, they also aren’t shy about giving them kudos. Individual contributors say their managers’ biggest strength is giving them the freedom to do their jobs as they see fit. In fact, 40 percent of direct reports selected this as their manager’s top strength.

Individual contributors are most likely to say that in one word, their manager makes them feel valued. Most of the direct reports surveyed (65 percent) selected a positive sentiment when they describe how they feel daily. They feel valued, confident, motivated, and hopeful for the future!

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