Opinion

The business book club: Why better managers break all the rules

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

First published in 1999 and based on a study by Gallup involving 80,000 managers in various industries, this classic explores the challenge for many organisations – attaining, keeping and measuring employee satisfaction. How do great managers do it? Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman say that they “break all the rules” of conventional management wisdom.

The authors share four keys for breaking the rules that reveal that the most effective managers focus on talent, outcomes, developing strengths, and finding the right fit.

Conventional management suggests we should select people based on their experience, intelligence and determination. Buckingham and Coffman say break this rule: choose employees based on talent rather than experience.

Managers should help employees to make the most of their talents, not to fill their skills gaps. “Talent is the multiplier,” say the authors. “The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield.” Consider a safety project or initiative in your organisation. Who shines? Who has the enthusiasm to drive action? Convention also states that, when making plans, we should first define the right steps. Break this rule too. Good management is not having direct control: it’s about remote control. So the second key is to define the outcomes, what the end result should be, and then get out of the way. Keep the focus on the goal and the net result will be employees who take responsibility, become more self-reliant and enjoy a sense of contribution. What are the outcomes you’d like to see in safety? Go beyond accident frequency rates, think about the behaviour and feelings you’d like people to have. 

Choose employees based on talent rather than experience

The third key is to focus on strengths and forget about trying to “fix” people. This reminds us that the goal is to help people make the most of their talents. “The manager creates performance in each employee by speeding up the reaction between the employee’s talent and the company’s goals, and between the employee’s talent and the customer’s needs.” How does your organisation motivate through strengths-based feedback?

The fourth key concerns reward and recognition, particularly that from an immediate manager. Feedback must be regular, clear, and allow something concrete to be achieved. Simply telling people to “work safely” or ‘follow the rules” is insufficient. Positive feedback is “relationship glue” – who can you recognise today?

Strong personal relationships are crucial for success, whether considering operational performance or safety. There’s a handy set of 12 questions that the authors believe “capture everything you need to know about the workplace”.

They include: Do I know what is expected of me at work? Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work correctly? At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person? Do my opinions seem to count? Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

How can you adapt these questions to start safety conversations?

Here’s a final thought from the book: great managers look inward. Great leaders, by contrast, look outward. Where are you looking today? Perhaps some big-picture thinking and “breaking a few rules” might help you establish even better relationships and encourage excellent output.

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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