Roundtable: Middle Managers Key to Making Engagement Tech Work

Engaged Workers

If two or more HR professionals get together and don’t begin discussing “engagement” halfway through the first drink, something’s wrong. With the labor market as tight as it is, the importance of convincing employees they’re an integral part of a greater whole has never been more important to both recruiting and retention.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making engagement efforts succeed many HCM technology vendors, consultants and practitioners neglect—or at least minimize—the importance of middle managers. After all, these are the people who have the most direct impact on workers’ day-to-day experience, so when their actions don’t align with leadership’s message, trouble is bound to result.

To explore this, we gathered a panel of leaders who spend a lot of their time thinking about engagement. They include:

  • David Hassell, Co-founder and CEO of 15Five.
  • Steven Hunt, senior vice president, HCM Research, SAP SuccessFactors.
  • Rusty Lindquist, vice president, thought leadership, BambooHR.
  • Chad Sowash, talent acquisition and engagement strategist, Catch 22 Consulting.

Their discussion, moderated by HCM Technology Report Editor Mark Feffer. Let’s dive in.

Mark Feffer: As more companies incorporate some kind of technology into their engagement programs, is HR paying enough attention to getting middle managers on board with its use, or are they just deploying the product and saying, “Here you go?”

David Hassell, 15Five
David Hassell
15Five

David Hassell: Every business is different. On one side of the spectrum, you have a company whose leaders are only aware that something is broken because of some metric, such as costs are up or revenue is low. After some investigating, they learn that a tech solution like performance management software might help. On the other side of the spectrum, you have companies that are incredibly employee-focused. They know more or less what needs improvement (i.e., morale is low or productivity is falling), and they bring on the software as part of an intentional commitment to making things better.

That first company is more likely to deploy and say “here you go.” My sense is that many companies operate this way, mainly due to a perceived or real scarcity of resources and time. So many businesses are demanding and have slim profit margins. Unfortunately, those companies usually aren’t very successful with the software no matter how well-designed and intuitive the platform is, because they don’t meet it halfway.

Our most successful customers have HR departments or some other manager who “owns” 15Five. That’s literally part of their job description, and they manage everything from filtering out stale employee feedback questions to using survey responses to make an impact at the company, to gently nudging mid-level managers to create their quarterly objectives or finalize their latest reviews cycle.

Steven Hunt: We have conducted extensive research into companies adopting more continuous performance management methods. What’s very clear is that the successful companies invest a lot into training, encouraging, supporting and holding managers accountable for providing ongoing coaching.

Chad Sowash: I’ve experienced little buy-in when it comes to the application of new recruiting technology as a rule—and engagement platforms are no exception. If buy-in occurs, the issues usually revolve around developing processes and routines for users. Most importantly, however, there needs to be education and then enforcement through performance and usage metrics. Even if vendors already have baked-in triggers and routines for users, none of it matters without the real buy-in through tenacious education and enforcement.

Rusty Lindquist, BambooHR
Rusty Lindquist
BambooHR

Rusty Lindquist: Getting managers on board—for anything—remains a perpetual struggle for HR in almost every organization I’ve seen. These are people who are usually held accountable for business outcomes, and because of that anything not directly connected to those outcomes, at least in their minds, takes a  back seat. The key is to help middle managers connect the dots between  employee engagement and employee performance. Once those lines are clear, they’re more prone to focus on the tools and principles that can  help.

In my observation, not enough effort is being invested by HR to help open the middle manager’s eyes to the business impact of these tools. There’s usually some effort, but in this regard HR takes on a sales role. You’ve got to sell—make them believe, make it personal—not just inform. I see a lot of information being transferred, but less selling of the  initiative.

It’s easy to say “they should already care.” but then again it’s easy to say, “I should go to the gym every day.” Until it’s somehow personal, until I have a real reason to do it, I likely won’t. Knowledge alone is seldom enough to change behavior.

Mark Feffer: Do you think vendors are paying enough attention to the middle manager’s role in engagement, both generally and in terms of their products?

David Hassell: I think they have to be or they won’t last very long. These types of products have multiple stakeholders—an administrator, who’s usually an executive or HR leader, then managers and directors, and then the employees themselves. If any one of these groups is displeased or otherwise disengaged from the product, the whole system implodes.

The middle manager is quite literally in the middle of all of this. They have to be responsive to employees, for example, by answering survey questions. They also have to pass information up to the C-suite so that those folks are getting the visibility they desire. After all, that’s a big reason why they’re paying for the software.

Rest assured that any vendor that’s not gathering feedback from managers, or isn’t responding to that feedback by adding new features and improving the product, will likely not be in the marketplace for very long.

Chad Sowash: Yes, vendors want, need, and must have engagement from all user levels or the platform will fail. If a platform fails, for the most part because it wasn’t the right fit for the organization or the client company wasn’t diligent during deployment and daily sustainable routines, and that includes enforcing those routines. In general, vendors of these types of platforms will gladly offer training to ensure success, which leads to the obligatory case study and more sales.

Steven Hunt, SAP SuccessFactors
Steven Hunt
SAP SuccessFactors

Steven Hunt: It depends on the focus of the vendor. Many human capital management technology companies sell based primarily on automation and cost efficiency. They’re not concerned with actually changing the behavior of managers to increase employee development and engagement. SAP SuccessFactors is different, as the company was founded on the vision of improving people’s lives and making the world run better. We invest considerable time and resources into understanding what’s required to use technology to positively transform organizational culture and improve the nature of work. This is reflected in the design of our products, our customer engagement methods, and the nature of research we conduct.

Rusty Lindquist: I don’t think vendors are paying enough attention to the middle manager, and this shows up in two fundamental ways. First, most vendor efforts are focused on features that are powerful to those who already believe, but not in building belief in middle managers who don’t. Additionally, I see most efforts being focused on diagnostics as opposed to treatment. It’s like going to the hospital and being diagnosed with a problem—“Oh, it looks like you’ve cut off your finger”—then released and sent a bill. Knowing there’s a problem, but not knowing what to do about it, is unhelpful.

I see this as being an area of huge upcoming investment as the engagement industry shifts from a more myopic focus on “oh, hey, you have a problem,” to “No, here’s what you can do about it.” It’s the transition from diagnostics to treatment, from mere visibility to insight and action. Glint is a company doing this well right now, but they only operate in the enterprise space.

Mark Feffer: What, if anything, do you think HR should do differently?

David Hassell: HR should be the “owner” of the software. I don’t mean that they should own the relationships with individual employees—that falls to middle managers. However, even the simplest software takes some time to get used to. A successful launch and continued attention can mean the difference between success and failure. Somebody has to oversee that initially and over time.

Performance management technology can be extraordinarily powerful because, at its best, it’s a fluid communication channel for the most important information to travel throughout the layers of a company. It also automates management systems like OKRs that help establish and track top company priorities.

The nature of HR is very often as a liaison between the different layers and teams of a company, balancing the needs of the different groups. So HR needs to be a support for managers to have the time and resources they need to really drop in with employees and be true leaders. Executives can’t bring on a sophisticated tool and expect it to just work like magic. HR must make efforts to explain to its executives that managers need adequate time and resources to manage their people. These efforts can make or break a company’s engagement initiatives with performance management technologies.

Steven Hunt: It’s not about HR. It’s really about business leadership. Historically, most companies didn’t hire or promote people to managerial roles based on their coaching skills.  Most people were promoted because of factors like technical skills or individual performance.  And many companies never trained their managers on how to coach, nor did they hold them accountable for being good coaches. As a result, we have managers who weren’t hired based on their coaching skills, not trained on how to coach and not held accountable or rewarded for being good coaches. Given this history, it’s not surprising that many managers struggle with being effective coaches. It’s not that these managers don’t want to be good coaches, they just don’t know how to do it and historically haven’t been rewarded for it.

Engagement technology—or as we call it, continuous performance management technology—delivers value through encouraging and supporting effective coaching conversations. But most managers don’t know how to have those conversations. Furthermore, those conversations can damage manager-employee relationships if they aren’t done well. So a big part of using this technology is giving managers the skills, confidence and encouragement to hold effective coaching conversations.

The second step is to hold senior leaders accountable for role modeling and enforcing the sorts of coaching behaviors the company expects of middle managers. I believe most managers manage their direct reports largely based on how they are managed themselves. If senior leaders demonstrate effective coaching behavior with their managers, those managers are far more likely to demonstrate the same sorts of coaching behaviors to their employees. If a company doesn’t like the way that its middle managers are acting, its leaders should take a look at how they act toward middle managers. If leaders aren’t willing to role model and reward coaching behaviors, why should they expect their managers to display these behaviors? HR needs to have the courage to confront company executives with this reality.

Chad Sowash, Catch 22 Consulting
Chad Sowash
Catch 22 Consulting

Chad Sowash: HR needs to engage a third party for a full assessment of current platforms and processes already in use to ensure those platforms are being leveraged to their fullest potential. In many cases it’s not the inability of the platform to perform that’s the issue. Instead, it’s the inability of humans to understand the platform’s full range of capabilities. This inability also drives redundant spending and massive platform overlap. HR has to fight the urge to slap another piece of tech on the stack because it’s believed to be the engagement “silver bullet.”

Rusty Lindquist: HR has to do more than recognize they have an engagement problem and win  approval to allocate resources on tools to help. Engagement is a deeply  personal thing. It’s highly individualistic. And while systematic, wholesale treatments can help improve employee satisfaction in general, to really get an engaged—or more importantly, an inspired—workforce,  you have to get down to the individual employee.

HR can’t do that  alone. This effort has to be democratized, which means HR need to  recruit. Specifically they need to recruit managers to their cause. Not  just train, but recruit. Engagement requires an all-in effort across the organization. This, I think, is the biggest hurdle facing HR. Not choosing software, but recruiting managers and teaching them the principles and elements that lead to employee engagement.

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