How top managers drive wellbeing, motivation, and performance

Lauren Lazo

Burnout has no boundaries. Its burden is pervasive. In 2021, nearly 90% of US workers reported that they experienced burnout. In today’s world — with rising inflation, an enduring pandemic, and a stream of upsetting headlines — it has never been harder for companies to create work environments that support employee wellbeing, motivation, and performance.

While research shows that managers can have the biggest impact on mitigating burnout, the question remains: What specific steps can they take to better support their people? 

In a recent webinar, our CEO and co-founder Laszlo Bock and CTO and co-founder Wayne Crosby answered this question. Informed by results from Humu’s proprietary research and over 40 years of collective management experience, Laszlo and Wayne offered valuable insight into how managers can unlock their teams’ full potential.

95% of employees say bad managers make everything worse

It makes sense that a manager who exacerbates existing problems, or creates new ones, will contribute to higher levels of burnout. But what is the very worst type of manager? For Laszlo, it’s one that doesn’t trust their people. And research supports this sentiment. Trust is one of the biggest factors that drive employee happiness and productivity. Wayne pointed to micromanagers, who take away a person’s autonomy to decide how to complete their work — thereby dampening confidence and creativity.

58% of employees say a bad manager is the #1 contributor to burnout

Managers have a big impact on the main drivers of burnout — which include being overworked, doing work that doesn’t feel meaningful, or lacking professional growth opportunities. To help employees combat burnout, managers can, for example, uncover each of their team members’ personal mission. Try asking one of these questions in 1:1s with reports:

  • What provides you with a sense of purpose on your best days?
  • How would you define your personal mission?
  • How can I help align more of your work to that mission?

Take notes on each person’s answers and keep an eye out for tasks that will contribute to each of them learning and finding more meaning in their work. 

People whose manager helps them combat burnout are 13x more likely to be satisfied with their manager

According to Laszlo, the single most important thing a manager can do to prevent burnout is to care for their people. That starts with giving employees the time and space they need to recharge. At Humu, after the pandemic hit we made every other Friday an official day off, or a “Recharge Friday.” Since implementing this policy, burnout is down and satisfaction is up, with no dip in productivity. 

If you’re unable to give your team extra time off, make a point to show interest in each person’s life outside of work. It might feel like a simple gesture, but asking team members about personal or family news during regular check-ins goes a long way toward increasing overall wellbeing. 

A great individual contributor doesn’t necessarily make a great manager

All of this talk about the impact of bad managers raises the question of how these individuals became managers to begin with. Many organizations promote high-performing individual contributors and then fail to equip them with the necessary skills to be an effective people manager. To avoid falling into this trap, companies can do two things: create transparency around how promotions happen and offer managers more development opportunities.

Laszlo shared, for example, that Humu partnered with a customer whose people felt their promotion process was unfair. Instead of altering it, we nudged both individual contributors (ICs) and managers to discuss role expectations before the process started, keep an open line of communication while it was happening, and discuss how and why decisions were made once it ended. This increase in transparency helped people better understand how performance was measured and what they needed to do to be considered for a promotion. While the process wasn’t perfect, employees realized it wasn’t unfair.

It’s also important to keep in mind that bad managers may have good intentions but not know how to support their teams. That's where science-backed, easily actionable tips come in. Nudging managers within the flow of their day-to-day work can help them move from good intentions to impactful action.  

The 5 manager actions that matter most

Combating burnout can sometimes feel like sailing during a hurricane. Wayne provided helpful guidance for overwhelmed managers by highlighting the five actions they can take to most effectively steady the boat.

1. Give people more freedom than feels comfortable: Our proprietary research shows that 66% of employees would leave their job for one that gives them more control over where they work and 71% would leave for a role that gives them more control over when they work. If possible, give your team the freedom to decide when and where they do their job.

If that’s not feasible, find other ways to offer autonomy. For example, help your team better understand an end-goal and then give them the freedom to figure out how to get there. In your next team meeting, define outcomes instead of processes. Outline a clear milestone, then ask your team to create an action plan. By letting your team determine a path forward — while still getting regular feedback from you — you can give them more ownership of their work.

2. Offer personally meaningful growth opportunities: Challenges can be important chances to learn. When your team members hit a roadblock, help them work toward a solution — even if it might be faster to step in and solve it yourself. Offer support, not a rescue. Encourage employees to brainstorm solutions when problems arise, and help them experiment to see which idea might be most effective.

3. Rally the team together: People want to feel a sense of continuous progress and generally don’t find repetitive, mundane tasks meaningful. At Humu, we’ve made it a habit to bring our teams together via hackathons to automate away pesky tasks or solve cross-functional inefficiencies. This practice helps us build a shared sense of purpose and unburden our people. 

Another way to rally your people is to make nostalgia meaningful. Ask your team to reflect on a time at work when they felt a strong sense of connection with their coworkers. Facilitate a group discussion about their experiences, and then look for opportunities to replicate them in small ways.

4. Emphasize the “why”: It can be difficult to keep everyone on the same page when priorities are changing quickly. By creating transparency around why priorities have shifted, managers can keep folks motivated rather than discouraged. When you make or share decisions that impact the goals team members are working toward, share the rationale in addition to the outcome — and invite clarifying questions.

5. Make the most of 1:1s: The 1:1 is an often overlooked tool for building meaningful relationships. Many managers schedule recurring 1:1’s only to have them digress into status updates. “That is the least important thing you can be talking about in a 1:1,” Wayne explained. Instead, use the 1:1 as a time to connect with your people and open the door to conversations about growth and wellbeing. Try asking questions like: 

  • How is your workload? 
  • What challenges are you facing? 
  • What are you excited about? 
  • What are you frustrated by? 

When managers demonstrate that they care about and understand their team members’ points of view, they earn trust and improve team wellbeing.

Wayne emphasized that the importance of 1:1s cannot be overstated. In the coming months, we’ll be building out a suite of new features to help managers improve 1:1s by offering them guidance on how to have the conversations that matter, in the moments that matter most. These new features remove the mundane aspects of management and nudge managers towards behaviors that get the most out of their people. Stay tuned for updates!

Schedule a demo to learn how Humu can unburden your managers.