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spike bullet August, 1999 - It's the Manager . . .

Background on this month's article
It's the Manager, Stupid
The Most Powerful Discovery
The Data Behind the Book
The Search for Patterns
The 12 Questions
Why these 12?
You May be Wondering . . .
Books and Articles 
Acknowledgement and Copyright

Background on this month's article

Our topic this month is written by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of First Break All The Rules (now one of the top 10 best sellers).  At the risk of offending many of our readers, we have said many times that if 90% of the managers were fired, organizations would work better.  We say that because so many people with the title of "manager" don't have the training, skills or natural talent to be really good managers.  They continue to follow the bad habits of the bad managers they worked for, without realizing how much damage they are doing to themselves, their employees and their companies.

Most managers are thrown into the job with little preparation and even less confidence in their abilities.  Of course, they can't say to their employees, "Hey, I'm not sure what I'm doing, so help me learn how to manage you."  To cover those weaknesses, they may try to exert "control" or follow someone's else's "rules for success," which may be the very things that makes them bad managers.   Managing people is a very challenging job that requires many different skills as well as natural ability - some management skills can be learned, some aspects of good managers must come from inside.  Good managers constantly work to improve their skills and further develop their own natural abilities.  Excellent managers might be willing to say, "I'm new at this job, so help me learn what works best for each you."

In their book, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization explain the critical factors that measure the difference between bad managers, good managers and excellent managers.  Gallup did extensive interviews with employees and managers, as well as extensive analysis of corporate sales and profits to hone in on the key factors that can explain the differences.

This article is a summary of some of their discoveries and we are honored to be given permission to share it with our readers.  We encourage anyone interested in management to make the time to read the article and the book. 

First Break All the Rules is a breakthrough book that for the very first time, provides surveys with large numbers of people to support insights into the nature of management in America today. 

We don't necessarily agree with all of their points and we caution that this book should not be used as gospel or taken without additional thought.  The authors caution against that also.  Managers should use the article and the book as thought-provoking tools to help further develop their own unique management style. 

It's the Manager, Stupid 

by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

What can you do to find and keep talented employees in every role?

In tight labor markets, companies seem prepared to go to almost any lengths to prevent employees’ eyes from wandering. If you work for G.E. you may be one of the 23,000 employees who are now granted stock options in the company. Employees of AlliedSignal and Starbucks can make use of the company concierge service when they forget that their mothers need flowers and their dachshunds need walking. And at Eddie Bauer, in-chair massages are available for all those aching backs hunched over computer terminals.

But do any of these caring carrots really work? Do they really attract and keep only the most productive employees? Or are they simply a catch-all, netting productive employees and R.O.A.D warriors alike—the army’s pithy phrase for those sleepy folk who are happy to Retire On Active Duty?

Over the last twenty years the Gallup Organization has conducted an extensive study of workplaces in an attempt to answers these questions. We interviewed over a million employees, asking each employee hundreds of questions, probing every conceivable aspect of their working life.

The Most Powerful Discovery - People Leave Managers, Not Companies

Our most powerful discovery? People leave managers, not companies.

As an employee, you may join G.E., Fidelity or McKinsey because of their stature in the job market or their reputation for investing in employee-training, but how long you stay and how productive you are while you are there depends massively on your relationship with your immediate supervisor.

It’s not that employee-focused initiatives, like training or profit-sharing, are unimportant. It’s just that your immediate manager is more important. She defines and pervades your work environment. If she sets clear expectations, knows you, trusts you and invests in you, then you can forgive the company its lack of a profit-sharing program.

But if your relationship with your manager is fractured, then no amount of in-chair massaging or company-sponsored dog-walking will persuade you to stay and perform. It is better to work for a great manager in an old-fashioned company, than for a terrible manager in a company offering an enlightened, employee-focused culture. From the perspective of talented employees, managers trump companies.

The Data Behind the Book

How can we be so sure? The data.

One hundred million questions are a towering haystack of data. To understand what attracted the most talented employees, we had to sift through it, straw by straw, and find the needle. We had to pick out those very, very few questions that were truly measuring the core of a strong workplace. If you have a statistical mind, you can probably hazard a pretty good guess as to how we approached it—a combination of focus groups, factor analysis, regression analysis, concurrent validity studies, and follow-up interviews.

However, if you think statistics are the mental equivalent of drawing your fingernails across a chalk-board, the following image may help you envision what we were trying to do.

In 1666, Isaac Newton closed the blinds of his house in Cambridge and sat down in a darkened room. Outside the sun shone brightly. Inside, Isaac cut a small hole in one of the blinds and placed a glass prism at the entrance. As the sun streamed through the hole, it hit the prism and a beautiful rainbow fanned out on the wall in front of him. Watching the perfect spectrum of colors playing on his wall, Isaac realized that the prism had pried apart the white light, refracting the colors to different degrees. He discovered that white light was, in fact, a mixture of all the other colors in the visible spectrum, from dark red to deepest purple; and that the only way to create white light was to draw all of these different colors together into a single beam.

We wanted our statistical analyses to perform the same trick as Isaac’s prism. We wanted them to pry apart strong workplaces to reveal the core. We could then say to managers and companies "If you can bring all of these core elements together in a single place, then you will have created the kind of work place that can attract, focus and keep the most talented employees."

The Search for Patterns

So we took our mountain of data and we searched for patterns. Which questions were simply different ways of measuring the same factor? Which were the best questions to measure each factor? We weren’t particularly interested in those questions that yielded a unanimous "Yes, I strongly agree!" Nor were we swayed by those questions where everyone said "No. I strongly disagree." Rather we were searching for those special questions where the most engaged employees—those who were loyal and productive—answered positively, and everyone else—the average performers and the R.O.A.D. warriors—answered neutrally or negatively.

Questions that we thought were a shoo-in—like those dealing with pay and benefits—fell under the analytical knife. At the same time, innocuous little questions—such as "Do I know what is expected of me at work?"—forced their way to the forefront. We cut and we culled. We rejigged and reworked, digging deeper and deeper to find the core of a great workplace.

The 12 Questions

When the dust finally settled, we made a discovery. We discovered that measuring the strength of a workplace can be simplified down to twelve questions. These twelve questions don’t capture everything you may want to know about your workplace. But they do capture the most information and the most important information. They measure the core elements needed to attract, focus and keep the most talented employees.

Here they are:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best everyday?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission of my company make me feel like my work is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Why These 12?

You may be wondering why there are no questions dealing with pay, benefits, senior management, or organizational structure. There were initially, but they disappeared during the analysis. This doesn’t mean that they are unimportant. It simply means that they are equally important to every employee, good, bad and mediocre. Yes, if you are paying twenty percent below the market average, then you may have difficulty attracting people. But bringing your pay and benefits package up to market levels, while a sensible first step, will not take you very far. These kinds of issues are like tickets to the ball-park—they can get you into the game, but they can’t help you win.

What can help you win is finding, developing and valuing great managers. Your immediate manager can affect every single one of these questions. Remember, our research revealed that employees rated these twelve questions differently depending on which business unit they worked for (and by "business unit" we mean restaurant, factory, hotel, branch, or department), rather than which company. In a particular company, if you worked for one department it might feel completely different than if you worked for the one right next door.

 This means that companies like Disney, Microsoft and G.E. don’t have one culture—they have as many cultures as they do managers. So, unlike Wall Street and the business press, employees don’t put their faith in the myth of "Great Companies" or "Great Leaders." For employees, there are only managers: great ones, poor ones and many in between. Michael Eisner, Jack Welch, Gerald Levin, and all the goodwill in the world can only do so much with centralized initiatives. 

Perhaps the best thing that they, or any leader can do to drive the whole company toward greatness, is first, hold each manager locally accountable for what his employees say to these twelve questions, and second, help each manager know what actions to take to deserve "Strongly Agree’s" from his employees.

You May be Wondering . . .

You probably noticed that many of the questions contain an extreme. "I have a best friend at work" or "At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best everyday." When the questions are phrased like this it is much more difficult to say "Strongly Agree" or "5," on a 1-5 scale. But this is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to find questions that would discriminate between the most productive departments and the rest. We discovered that if you removed the extreme language, then the question lost much of its power to discriminate. Everyone said "Strongly Agree"—the best, the rest and everyone in between. A question where everyone always answers "Strongly Agree" is a weak question.

Much of the power of this measuring stick, then, lies in the wording of the questions. The issues themselves aren’t a big surprise. Most people knew that, for example, strong relationships and frequent praise were vital ingredients of a healthy workplace. However, they didn’t know how to measure whether or not these ingredients were present, and if so, to what extent.

Gallup has discovered the best questions to do just that.

For more details, you will have to read the book.

Acknowledgements and Copyright

Permission to use this article is gratefully acknowledged.  (c) 1999 The Gallup Organization.

book graphic BooksDisclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, Simon & Schuster; (May 1999) ISBN: 0684852861

world wide web - articles Articles

Application of the techniques presented here:

  • Paper "Student Retention and Faculty Performance: Improving A Dynamic Relationship" contributed by Sam Welch available by permission of the author.  Downloadable PDF file (33k).  To save the file, click the link with your right mouse and select "save as.." or "save target file as.." and enter a location on your hard drive for the file. You will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the file.  

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