5 Ways Managers Can Build Relationships That Matter with Their Team Members

Person in a wheelchair, wearing a blue shirt, shaking hands with a person wearing a gray shirt.Businesses around the world are struggling to increase employee engagement. According to Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace report, only 33 percent of the nation's workers are actively committed to their jobs. The rest are either passively or actively unengaged, meaning they either don't care enough to put forth their best effort or are actively conspiring against their employers.

The problem is clear: Historic levels of low engagement are compromising businesses' success. Unfortunately, while businesses recognize the importance of improving the situation, they have been largely unsuccessful at remedying it. Per Deloitte's 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, “Rewriting the Rules for the Digital Age,” 79 percent of respondents believe the employee experience is important or very important. However, only 22 percent said their organizations did an excellent job at cultivating this experience. Meanwhile, 59 percent said they were somewhat ready at best to handle this issue.

Why is engagement so low? Part of the reason is many employees have poor relationships with their business leaders, particularly those immediately above them. Managers are able to directly influence how their team members feel about the job, but their approach to leadership often works against them and demotivates employees. As a result, these individuals tend to view their managers as ineffective at best and adversarial at worst. This reaction furthers the cycle of low engagement and poor performance.

To properly address and improve employee engagement, managers need to strengthen their relationships with their team members. Here are ways managers of all levels can cultivate such a bond with their employees:

1. Strengthen Their Managerial Skills

Many employees don't hold their managers in the highest regard, viewing them as incompetent or even malicious. Research suggests some truth to these assumptions, as Gallup found the majority of managers aren't actually fit for the position. Only 10 percent of the population naturally develops the required managerial skills, while other professionals are teachable but not innately talented. However, businesses choose suitable managerial candidates in a mere 18 percent of cases.

These findings reveal two major problems. To start, companies are surprisingly ineffective at appointing managers. This is a huge predicament, as strong managers are integral to running a business, yet most are promoted to the position simply based on tenure, not on their leadership capabilities. Executives and human resources teams need to better recognize what traits are necessary in a good manager and avoid hiring or promoting people based on only a certain number of years of experience.

Second, Gallup's research indicates many managers don't receive the necessary job training to perform well in their new positions. Thankfully, this is an issue aspiring managers can easily solve by furthering their education—even while they're still employed. Working adults can enroll in an online Master of Business Administration program, which can give them the analytic, decision-making, and leadership skills vital for effective management.

Aspiring managers can learn these skills with the Washington State University Carson College of Business, which provides an online MBA program that allows students to obtain their degrees in a manner that fits their schedules. The program is completely online, so students don't have to worry about their class schedules conflicting with work or family obligations. In addition, students can graduate in as few as 22–29 months, giving them the freedom to work at a pace that suits their needs.

The Carson College of Business online MBA curriculum encompasses a variety of managerial studies, including a course on team leadership and productivity, so students can get a well-rounded education that develops the traits many managers lack. By completing this program, aspiring managers can gain the foundation necessary to succeed in a leadership role, and current ones can prepare themselves for an even higher position.

2. Create Effective Employee Engagement Programs

Given the statistics, most businesses recognize the need to start an employee engagement initiative. However, most of these programs are ineffective or at least not as well designed as they could be. They typically rely on surveys to understand how team members feel, and then design activities or perks to increase employee happiness.

These approaches can be helpful, but they don't address the most significant component of low engagement: poor leadership. An ineffective manager can cause more damage than wellness initiatives like office yoga mats and flexible work-from-home policies can restore. What businesses must do is include employee feedback in managerial training as part of their new engagement strategies. Specifically, managers must solicit their teams for feedback on how to be better leaders, and those responses should be specially addressed in training so employees know they are being heard and valued. For example, if employees say they often lack clear direction, managers should receive training on how to effectively communicate assignments and expectations.

Additionally, creating effective engagement programs requires support in the form of both time and money. For the example above, a single half-hour workshop may not be enough to solve the communication problem, but a roundtable discussion or series of presentations might. Similarly, free muffins every morning might not motivate employees as much as a full day of team building. The right support depends on the needs and resources of each individual organization.

3. Provide Immediate Positive Feedback

In addition to proper leadership and compelling engagement programs, managers can further their relationships with their teams by providing positive feedback. People who receive consistent, helpful feedback that reinforces positive behaviors generally outperform those who do not. It's best if this feedback is delivered as quickly as possible, as one study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that timeliness strongly encourages high performance.

To conduct the study, researchers monitored the hand-washing habits of staff at an intensive care unit over the course of two years, hoping to discover what best-motivated employees to practice proper hygiene. They found that immediate positive feedback displayed on an electronic board was a better motivator than cautioning the employees on the dangers of spreading disease, despite the study group's medical background. Essentially, the instant positive feedback triggered a reward signal in the brain, making hospital staff more likely to repeat the action that caused it in order to receive that pleasure again.

The same idea works in the office. To encourage employees to reach their full potential or even to make small changes in their work habits, managers should recognize specific achievements as they happen. Not only can this approach lead to better performance, but it also makes teams feel appreciated.

4. Offer Quality Evaluations

Aside from immediate positive reinforcement, managers must also hold structured performance reviews on a regular basis to build stronger relationships with their employees. Doing so provides an opportunity to delve deeply into specific assignments or issues concerning an employee.

Like engagement programs, performance reviews are widely but not effectively used. Many businesses still rely on annual evaluations only, forcing managers to review a year's worth of goals and achievements in a single setting. Unfortunately, due to the scope of time involved, it's hard for managers to review their employees on relevant criteria. Performance at the beginning of the year will be judged based on metrics from the end, and vice versa. In addition, managers are more likely to forget old occurrences that are critical to the employee's review. This can make employees feel as if their work isn't valued, leading to low engagement.

Increasing the frequency of these evaluations helps managers more accurately describe a person's performance. They're able to remain up to date on certain assignments and correct mistakes before they're repeated throughout the year. The feedback they provide is relevant and timely, which helps employees improve. This more consistent feedback can also improve the relationship between the manager and the employee, and thereby increase employee engagement.

Furthermore, managers must remember to focus on a person's achievements, not just failures, to help their teams perform better. This again makes employees feel respected and motivates them at work.

5. Experience Their Work

Even with quality evaluations, team members often feel that their managers lack a true sense of what happens in the office day to day. This may well be true; because of their position, managers know what their teams accomplish as a unit but are removed from smaller achievements and struggles. As such, it's harder for them to recognize the minor but consequential issues their teams face. Problems like inefficient software and excessive bureaucracy seem like small details, but those details can build up and make it harder for teams to perform efficiently.

To better understand these issues, managers should spend anywhere from a few hours to an entire day performing the functions of one of their employees. Doing so increases their understanding of the jobs their employees perform and the tools and systems available. With this information, managers can better delegate assignments and set reasonable expectations and deadlines, which can help employees feel like their concerns are taken seriously and addressed, leading to higher motivation and engagement.

Learning Better Management Skills at the Carson College

Carson College can help aspiring managers acquire the necessary skills to motivate their teams. The school's dynamic online MBA program not only includes several management courses, but it also gives students the option of specializing in a specific concentration. Students can tailor their educational experience according to one of the four areas below:
• Finance
• Marketing
• Hospitality Business Management
• International Business

In addition, students who want a more general education or aren't interested in the above concentrations can pursue the General Track and choose electives relevant to their interests.
By studying at Carson College, managers can build upon or reinforce the skills that make them great leaders and strengthen their relationships with their teams.

Recommended Readings:

4 Leadership Tips from Renowned Business Professionals


Deloitte.com, 2023 Global Human Capital Trends

Gallup.com, 2 Reasons Why Employee Engagement Programs Fall Short

Washington State University, Online MBA Program

Washington State University, Online MBA Program Curriculum

Oxford Academic, Clinical Infectious Diseases