[Editor’s Note: This is blog post has a companion piece by George Klemp titled, Enough about Leadership, Let’s Talk about Management.]

Almost everyone working in an organization works for a manager. However, the dictionary definition of “manager” (a person who controls the activities of others) is at odds with what most employees generally want – or don’t want. People mostly don’t like being “controlled”. The trouble is: Many managers view that as the primarily responsibility of their jobs.

Employees are hired based on the knowledge and skills they possess as well as their interest, capacity, and motivation to do good work. The expectation is that many of them will progress to greater levels of responsibility and be rewarded for their efforts. People typically expect their work to be useful and in many cases personally fulfilling, that they will be paid fairly, and will be treated with dignity and respect. Managers should have a fair amount of control over all of that.

When you ask employees what attracts them to work for an organization and what keeps them there, a lot boils down to the relationship with their manager. Just as working for a great manager is a key to employee engagement, working for a bad manager is the number one reason people leave.

A few of the more obvious characteristics that describe bad managers are intimidation, making unreasonable demands, showing lack of respect, micromanaging, and simple incompetence. Books for employees with titles like “how to work for a jerk boss” put the onus on the employee to make the relationship work.

Paging All Managers

The message for the manager is not just to stop being a jerk. Instead: Think of each employee as your customer and ask what you can do to make the relationship work.

When we conduct focus groups with employees in different organizations to learn what keeps them motivated and engaged, we ask a simple question: “As an employee, what do you want most from your manager to support your performance?” Employees generally cite six ways managers can make a difference in the quality of their work life and in their relationship with the boss:

  1. Be clear about what you want them to do. It is important that managers be detailed and explicit and check for understanding rather than assume employees know what is expected of them. Furthermore, it is important to also say why the work is important, why it’s best done a certain way, when it needs to be done, and what “success” looks like. Too many managers think that employees understand what is wanted, and when the employee does something that is not exactly what the manager intended, wasted effort and frustration on both sides are the results.
  2. Recognize good work. If someone does a good job, employees want their manager to recognize their efforts, instead of moving right on to “and here are other things I want you to do.” Just saying “thank you” goes a long way to make people feel appreciated, even if there were problems along the way. And picking the right spots to give positive feedback – not too often but when it matters the most – makes a big difference.
  3. Trust people to make good decisions and do good work. No organization sets out to hire incompetent people, so why should managers treat employees as always on the edge of doing something wrong? Even if things don’t work out, trusting people to do things the best way they know how gives them the confidence and incentive to do their best work. Another aspect of trust is allowing people or even encouraging them to try new ways to do things and experiment. If they can try new things, even if they aren’t successful at first, that’s one of the best ways for them to learn.
  4. Coach and give advice when the timing is best. This means being present enough to seize the moment to do it; this is the value of “managing by walking around.” When assigning a new task, managers should take the time to explain how it’s done and check in periodically to see how things are going – guiding people rather than telling them what to do. Besides being better at their current jobs, employees want to know what they need to learn and be able to do to get ahead in their careers. Managers shouldn’t wait for employees to bring this topic up, but instead, periodically and proactively show interest in people’s desire to move ahead and offer their counsel.
  5. Communicate regularly and in person. Employees want to know what’s on their manager’s mind, such as news and events that could affect them and their work. They also want to know what their manager thinks of their work and where they stand. As much as employees need to hear what’s happening from their manager, managers should make communication a two-way exchange. Taking time to have these conversations opens the doors for sharing ideas, getting feedback, listening for concerns, and being open to suggestions.
  6. Work at being a good role model. This begins with the manager striving to be the best manager he or she can be – the foundation of the manager’s credibility as a source of advice and good judgment. Being a good role model also means putting in the effort and showing the level of commitment they expect of others. Sometimes this means working shoulder-to-shoulder with their people, but not to the extent of doing their work for them. And they show patience and understanding with people while they are learning.

None of those six items is beyond the capacity of anyone in such a position of responsibility. Of course, being a great manager entails more than this. Here’s what’s also important to being a competent manager: business and technical knowledge and skills, industry experience, and knowing how to get things done in the organization – among other things.

But the quality of the relationship between manager and employee has great influence and effect on what employees want and need from their manager. And – all else being equal – the six points above are the keys to employee engagement and retention and a successful partnership.