4 Science-Backed Management Habits That Can Improve Performance

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Authored by

NLI Staff
Only about a third of US employees qualify as "engaged." It's up to management to create the habits that can boost that figure.

Becoming a manager—or moving up the management ranks—can be a daunting task. Industry research indicates that 44% of managers feel unprepared for their jobs.
Meanwhile, the data indicates that managers have an outsized role in employee engagement, and just a third of Americans qualify as “engaged” employees.
The good news: Leaders can harness the wisdom of science to foster precisely the kinds of management skills that drive engagement. Here are several to get you started.

1. Provide social rewards in interactions

Humans are extremely sensitive to social threats—the brain even processes them in the same way as physical threats. The same is true for social rewards. At NLI, we help organizations embrace the SCARF® Model. It stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness—five domains where people can feel threatened or rewarded.

A meeting with no clear agenda may trigger a certainty threat, while a highly structured meeting can bestow certainty rewards. Certainty rewards feel good—like a calming reassurance—because they tap into our instinctive desire to understand our surroundings. When we’re certain, we can think and act with confidence.

Those new to management should actively try to make interactions as rewarding as possible, like by celebrating a job well done to boost status, or creating relatedness by using inclusive “we” language instead of “I” or “me.”

The more rewarded people feel, research suggests, the more engaged they’re likely to be.

2. Evaluate your people with bias in mind

At NLI, we like to say, “If you have a brain, you’re biased.” This means that new managers can help themselves and their employees by taking steps to mitigate their bias in various interactions — performance reviews being one critical opportunity.

NLI groups biases into five buckets: Similarity, Expedience, Experience, Distance, and Safety. We call it The SEEDS Model®. A manager should take each one into account when evaluating an employee.

For example, instead of relying solely on information that is most accessible—an expedience bias— managers can gather a range of opinions from the employee’s team members to create a fuller picture of his or her role on the team.

Less-biased reviews help build a sense of fairness between the employee and the manager. If managers can explain their thinking, they’ll help the employee see the reasoning behind a review, perhaps even an unfavorable one.

3. Ask for feedback

It’s important for new managers to learn the difference between intent and impact. For instance, although they may prioritize a feedback-rich culture, the only way they can override people’s tendencies to avoid threat is to non-threateningly ask for feedback themselves.

The NeuroLeadership Institute has performed a great deal of research finding asking for feedback—explicitly and often—to be a key driver of performance and organizational growth. Managers who create a culture of asking for feedback can expect people to feel less anxious and stressed out than if they wait to receive feedback unsolicited.

4. Shift career conversations from telling to asking

While 89% of employees say regular career conversations with their managers would make them “more likely to engage with their work, share ideas, and look for career growth in their current organization,” just 16% of employees say they are having those kinds of conversations.

New managers can go a long way toward building engagement by asking direct reports about their goals and vision for the future, rather than laying out pre-determined goals for them. The approach instills a crucial sense of autonomy in people, as they’re able to take greater ownership of the goal. Doing so also builds relatedness and status, since it communicates that the employee is the most qualified to know which goals are worthwhile.

Like so much of leadership, it’s not about having the perfect answers, but being able to ask the right questions.

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