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Book Summary: “12: The Elements of Great Managing” by Rodd Wagner and James Harter

In 1999, “First, Break All the Rules” became a best-seller. It was based on the results of The Gallup Organization combing through its database of more than 1 million employee and manager interviews to identify the elements most important to sustaining workplace excellence. [Note: my December 2009 post YES, Say Top Performers discusses the 12 questions identified in the book that can be used to measure the strength of a workplace.]

In that book’s sequel, “12: The Elements of Great Managing,” the authors incorporated the (by then) over 10 million interviews in order to deepen the focus on how great managers inspire top performance in employees by creating and sustaining employee engagement.

Each chapter in the book describes one of the 12 Elements in detail, and wrapped around an explanation of the element is the story of a manager who epitomizes that aspect. Following is a brief summary of each of the 12 Elements.

The 1st Element: Knowing What’s Expected

Too often employees don’t truly know what is expected of them at work. Overlapping responsibilities, lack of ownership and accountability, general role confusion, and a lack of willingness by managers and employees alike contribute to the need for the First Element: job clarity. The authors write that “knowing what’s expected is more than a job description. It’s a detailed understanding of how what one person is supposed to do fits in with what everyone else is supposed to do.” Every employee should be able to make a credible connection between their job and the mission and profits of the business.

The 2nd Element: Materials and Equipment

Ensuring that employees have the materials and equipment they need to do their work well serves two purposes for the company: 1) having the right tools makes a job safer, easier, and more productive, and 2) the employee’s perception that that company backs her up with the equipment she wants and needs is a powerful psychological motivator. It’s encouraging that, generally, people want to be productive and do their jobs well. They merely need the proper materials and equipment to give them that opportunity.

The 3rd Element: The Opportunity to Do What I Do Best

The authors contend that “Matching a person to the right job, or a job to the right person, is one of the most complicated responsibilities any manager will face.” As a consequence, no other element of managing has as much depth as the Third: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” The focus on the needs of the job has led to an increased use of job benchmarking while the identification of a person’s talents has resulted in the popularity of individual assessments such as StrengthsFinder.

The 4th Element: Recognition and Praise

In the perception of employees generally, praise is painfully absent from most companies and the workgroups within them. In fact, it is not uncommon to find between one-fifth and one-third of people who feel that their best efforts are routinely ignored. So, the Fourth Element is that, in the last seven days, has an employee received recognition or praise for doing good work. The authors feel that because of its power, low cos,t and rarity, this element is one of the greatest lost opportunities in the business world today.

The 5th Element: Someone at Work Cares About Me as a Person

People treat each other differently when they form a personal connection and, as such, employees give more effort in a group when they feel they are more than just a number. The business, then, reaps the rewards of greater teamwork. The Fifth Element is that “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.”

The 6th Element: Someone at Work Encourages My Development

Mentors have existed throughout the ages, and the Sixth Element, that there is someone at work who encourages my development, requires this kind of guidance through personal interaction. Statistics indicate that having a mentor is fundamental, a part of the unwritten social contract workers anticipate when they are hired. However, to be effective, these relationships must form naturally and not be forced. It is noted that in regards to having a mentor, many companies look better after new employees than they do their longstanding, loyal employees.

The 7th Element: My Opinions Seem to Count

Incorporating employee ideas pays back twice. First, the idea itself often is a good one. Second, that the idea comes from the employees themselves makes it much more likely they will be committed to its execution. To the second point, the authors write that “No matter how strong the external incentives, they never seem to measure up to the internal drive of advancing something that is at least partially one’s own idea.” Welcoming employee opinions also produces greater feelings of inclusion among workers.

The 8th Element: A Connection with the Mission of the Company

The degree to which a team agrees with this statement is predictive of its performance on a wide array of measures: The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important. While many of the other Elements relate to the job itself and getting the job done, the Eighth Element is strictly an emotional need, as if the employee can’t energize himself to do all he could without knowing how his job fits into the grand scheme of things. Once the employees’ basic needs are fulfilled, they search for meaning in their vocation. People gravitate toward a larger purpose.

The 9th Element: Coworkers Committed to Doing Quality Work

The authors write that “Few factors are more corrosive to teamwork than the employee who skates through life taking advantage of the much harder work of others.” Thus, the Ninth Element is: My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work. In an average team, only about one in three employee strongly agrees that her associates are committed to doing quality work. When 2 + 2 equals 3 instead of 2 + 2 equaling 5, the low performers need to be addressed, whether it’s a lack of skill or will (or both), since they drag the entire team down.

The 10th Element: A Best Friend at Work

In response to the original Gallup poll questions, a Washington Post columnist wrote “A best friend at work? What is this? High school?” The Chicago Tribune warned managers to be careful: “Friendships at work can lead to jealousy, envy and sloth.” The most controversial of the 12 Elements is the Tenth: “I have a best friend at work.” Gallup noted that they would have dropped this statement if not for one stubborn fact: It predicts performance. The authors note that “Something about a deep sense of affiliation with the people in an employee’s team drives him to do positive things for the business he otherwise would not do.”

The 11th Element: Talking About Progress

The Eleventh Element is measured by the statement: “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.” The authors write that “…the annual review isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but receiving regular, insightful, personal feedback is intensely powerful to workers.” Since we are often not competent at self-critiques and self-evaluations, it is imperative that a manager, a coach, or a mentor be able to hold up a mirror to an employee. From the Gallup study: a manager who primarily focuses on his employees’ strengths essentially inoculates them from being actively disengaged. Those managers who focus on weaknesses achieve lower results, but the manager gets credit for at least “focusing” on the individual. The worst-performing managers were those who essentially ignored their team. Of note: nearly two-thirds of employees who are actively disengaged say their boss is asleep at the wheel, providing little or no feedback of any kind.

The 12th Element: Opportunities to Learn and Grow

At the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid is “self-actualization,” fulfilling one’s potential. The dictionary definition of career revolves around the idea of successively greater accomplishments: Career – professional progress: somebody’s progress in a chosen profession or during that person’s working life. For many people, it is progress that distinguishes a career from employment that is “just a job.” The authors note that “a wealth of research – at least 200 studies – proves that challenging employees to meet goals motivates higher performance. When employees feel they are learning and growing, they work harder and more efficiently.”

An Element Unto Itself: The Problem of Pay

Asked why they do not include a compensation question when assessing employee engagement, Gallup responded that “answers to a pay question are so bundled up in psychological complexities that asking it usually causes more problems than it solves.” For the purposes of this book summary, I will merely include the summary statements that the authors discuss regarding pay:

  • Higher pay does not guarantee greater engagement.
  • Good and bad employees are equally likely to think they deserve a raise.
  • Some incentives can backfire, decreasing employee motivation.
  • Money without meaning is not enough compensation.
  • Pay is more about status than about paying the bills.
  • Pay comparisons among employees spark intense emotions.
  • In most countries and companies, people consider their pay a private matter.
  • While individual pay usually should not be public, compensation criteria should be.
  • Compensation works in concert with each of the 12 Elements.
  • Most employees who feel generously compensated repay the gesture.