What the world's greatest managers do differently

April 24, 2024
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What do the world's best managers do differently? This is the question Gallup sought to answer in a research study surveying over a million employees.

One of the hardest things about management is how everyone has their own way of doing things, their own story of what worked.

New books come out everyday from management gurus who claim that their 5 step method is what will work wonders for your team. In light of all the overwhelming information, how does one not only arrive at a consensus of "best practice" but also apply that consensus to your own team?

To answer that question, we need to look at research conducted across a large variety of management styles, teams and companies to see if conclusions can be drawn around what are the essentials to a "great manager" vs. an average manager.

This is exactly the research study undertaken by Gallup by surveying over a million employees from a broad range of companies, industries and countries. Their conclusions were published in the book: First, break all the rules: what the world's greatest managers do differently.

The book is chock full of stories gleaned from the many interviews and the author's musings on the conclusions drawn from their meta-analyses; it's well worth a read. But here, I will summarize a few of the main conclusions the book comes to.

The first big conclusion was that the employee's immediate relationship with their manager was the number one factor that affected their engagement at work. More than any incentives the company could offer or any sort of culture the company tried to create, the manager was what determined whether or not the person would leave or stay.

In other words, managers trump companies.

The next question, then, was obvious. What factors determine if you are a great manager?

A complex question that takes the rest of the book to answer, but Gallup boils it down to whether or not the employee can answer "Strongly Agree" to 12 questions that relate to their manager.

These questions fall into 4 categories:

  1. What do I get? These are basic needs like if you know what is expected of you, or if you have the materials and equipment to do your work right.
  2. What do I give? Once you know what is expected of you, you want to know what you can contribute and what impact that has on other people. Some of the questions that fall under this category are: "Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day ?" or "Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?"
  3. Do I belong here? Humans are social beings; we want to know that we fit in the company. These questions range from, "At work, do my opinions seem to count" to "Do I have a best friend at work?"
  4. How can we all grow? This is the most advanced stage, where you are looking to innovate and grow. You are asking whether you have opportunities at work to learn and grow and if someone has talked to you about your progress.

Now, how do these great managers get such great scores on these questions? Granted, each manager has their own way of communicating expectations, of creating a team culture in which everyone belongs, and of giving their employees opportunities for growth and development.

But out of the 120,000 hours of taped interviews and 5 million pages of transcript, Gallup found one common thread that connected the best managers. They all shared this one insight:

People don't change that much.

Don't waste time trying to put in what was left out.

Try to draw out what was left in.

That is hard enough.

Instead of continually treating each employee as a work in progress, and endlessly giving them tips to improve or work on their weaknesses, the best managers saw it as their job to instead draw out the strengths and talents of each individual and place them in roles that best accentuated those strengths.

The best managers are coaches, seeing the talents lying deep within each individual and drawing them out. They help employees define the goals and outcomes, without telling them exactly how to get there. They come alongside, cheering their team on, motivating them with their strengths.

The specifics of how to do this are unique to each team and to each individual - and this is the secret of every great manager: they are constantly honing their ability to see and tap into each human's unique potential.

And this is the art that no science could possibly capture.


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: what the world's greatest managers do differently. New York, NY., Simon & Schuster.


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