Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Truths stretched too far - Part I : Blame it on the managers

These days HR practices are supposed to be 'research based'. As HR professionals, when we recommend/implement a particular practice/policy in the people domain, we want to substantiate it with 'solid research findings'. There could be many problems with this. The first is the validity of the research findings in contexts other than that in which the research was conducted. The second problem occurs when there is a 'chain of reasoning' (and sometimes even an 'inferential leap') involved between the actual research finding and assumption(s) underlying the HR practice in question. It is also possible that other factors (other than the dimension covered in the research) that have an impact on the outcome gets ignored (In the people domain, and in life in general, most important things are 'overdetermined' - i.e. they have more than one cause). Of course, there is also the ever present danger of confusing between 'correlation' and 'causation'. In this series of blog posts, we would look at some of those research findings ('truths') that tend to get misinterpreted when they get stretched too far.

In this post (which is the first one in this series) let us look at the very popular research finding "People leave managers and not organizations". I think that there a lot of truth in this finding. The immediate supervisor is a key influencing factor in employee engagement and retention. The problem happens when other factors that influence employee engagement and retention are ignored and the entire responsibility(or even blame) is put on the managers. Often there are other significant factors involved (e.g. the basic nature of the job, 'Rewards' strategy, work environment, lack of career advancement opportunities etc.) over which first level managers don't have much influence. So when the attrition level goes high, the tendency is to respond with 'training the managers on engaging and energising teams'.

This response also suits HR admirably. The factors like basic nature of the job, 'Rewards' strategy, work environment, career advancement opportunities etc. are more difficult influence as compared to 'sending the poor managers for training'. While this gives HR the satisfaction of having 'responded quickly to the business challenge of attrition', unfortunately this does not solve the problem adequately. It also leaves the managers (who are already facing the consequences of attrition in their teams) more confused and frustrated. Hence we come back to the point that 'system level issues' have to be addressed at the system level (and no amount of manager training can obviate this need).

Related Links: Next post in this series , related post


Unknown said...

Hi Prasad,

You are right to an extend, however it is also true that immediate manager does have an influence on how an employee experiences the work environment. Manager does play a role in setting more realistic expectation of career advancement (you will agree Gen Y is more impatient and wants to move up much faster) and even showing how the current jobs add to self development and learning for the employee. Research also shows that Gen Y more relate to immediate supervisor than the organisations and hence see & feel the organisation thru senses of their managers. The above is surely not to defend HR folks who advices sending managers for training as a solution.

Rajat Raheja
VP - HR, Amdocs, APAC

Prasad Kurian said...

Hello Rajat,

Thank you very much for the comment.

Of course, I agree that the immediate manager does have a big influence on employee engagement/retention. My point was just that they are not solely responsible/not the only factor (and that they often get blamed even for things on which they have very little control over). Yes, a bad boss can drive people away, even in very good organizations – though it can be argued that in very good organizations there will be systems/processes to ensure that there are not too many too bad bosses (or that they won’t last too long).

Yes, it is mainly in the interaction with the immediate manager that ‘the rubber meets the road’ (i.e. the organization is experienced by/made real to the employees). Yes, a good manager can shape the organization realities for the employee to a large extent (especially when the managers are empowered). Yes, I agree that Gen Y relate better to their immediate supervisors.

Based on what I have heard from multiple geographies, I can also say that Gen Y (in general) wants to be managed in a more individualistic manner – in which their individuality is recognized, leveraged and even celebrated. I believe that one of the best ways for facilitating this is to develop and empower managers so that they can make the HR systems (that are usually optimized for efficiencies at the group/organization level) ‘work’ for an individual (an employee with unique preferences & talents). Some of this is already happening in many organizations – at least to a limited extent (e.g. in terms of ‘cc me’ /Computer Controlled Manager Empowerment – see
for details)