Pa Sinyan: what managers in hybrid companies need to understand

When colleagues aren’t in the same building, you can’t rely on accidental leadership to keep a team motivated and focused. Gallup’s Pa Sinyan outlines the skills you need to manage a hybrid workplace.

Pa Sinyan is Managing Partner with Gallup and leads Gallup’s teams across EMEA. In his role, he supports leading companies to drive organizational and cultural change. In the third episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 4, he explored how management changes in the hybrid working age — and what remains the same.

Watch the complete episode

The pandemic has changed how we think at work. But that’s not what Pa Sinyan wants to talk about first. He outlines what’s stayed the same:

“What hasn’t changed is what people want from work — their emotional needs from their work have remained consistent,” he explains. “But in the fulfilment of those needs, we’re seeing variance. More people intend to work from home, more people prefer to work from a hybrid setting. Not just that, people want to work from the road, too.”

That data shows that this attitudinal shift is here to stay — and organisations are going to have to deal with that. And it brings consequences.

The loss of accidental leadership

“We’re seeing a loss of what you might call ‘accidental leadership’,” he says. “Employees having the good luck to bump into their managers on the way to the bathroom.”

This might not seem lucky, but it can be the trigger for useful conversations about projects and thus engagement. Many managers who worked mainly via accidental leadership now have teams who are struggling, in terms of clarity of purpose and understanding what is expected of them.

Conversely, those managers who were naturally and instinctively good at managing, those who gave feedback, took the time, and prioritised holding their staff accountable, they’ve seen engagement levels go up. Overall engagement levels have stayed the same, Pa explains, because these two are balancing each other out. And that’s true in both Germany and the US.

But there are fundamental changes that the organisation need to address.

Management at a distance

“Nobody wants to commute anymore — that’s a change,” he says. “But people’s fundamental emotional needs haven’t changed.”

People’s expectations of what they need from work to perform well — and feel well — have remained consistent. These are issues like appreciation, recognition, and a sense of purpose, which manifests at an individual level as a sense that what they do actually matters.

“A clarity of expectations — do I know what is expected of me at work — is the foundation of our workplace needs,” says Pa. “Globally, only 50% of people who go to work every day have a clear sense of their purpose. That hasn’t taken a hit during COVID — but that’s the risk for companies now. The increased physical distance between colleagues could erode the clarity of purpose that’s the foundation of good performance management.”

Building an effective hybrid management culture

His CEO Jim Clifton wrote a book a couple of years ago called It’s the Manager, alluding back to the Bill Clinton slogan of “it’s the economy, stupid”.

The big revelation from the decades of data that Gallup’s collected is that 70% of the variance in employee performance and engagement comes down to who your manager is. As the old truism goes, people join companies and leave managers.

“It’s a phrase we all enjoy saying, but the data shows it to be absolutely true,” Pa says. “I would focus on solutions that emphasise the role of the individual manager. I care less about the CEO and more about what the 500, 1000, 10,000 managers are doing.”

Embrace all the managers

Yes, this makes things more complicated: it’s many touchpoints instead of just the one. But it’s what makes a real difference to corporate culture. So, in managing the changes we’re seeing in work, we need to emphasise the role of managers at all levels of the organisation.

“They create that clarity, they create that alignment, they build this emotional needs. And it can’t come from anyone else,” says Pa. “One best practice — one we use at Gallup — is the philosophy of individualisation through strengths. That has been one of the most effective strategies out there.

“As we become more physically distant, we require more to connect us. And an understanding of people’s individual strengths, what they bring to the table, has been very effective in terms of helping managers individualise. If a manager is aware of people’s strengths, she can set expectations in a way that is personal to the individual she’s working with. Some people might need a lot of details, more general guidance and a lot of positivity.”

Devolve management authority

Another strategy that he’s seen work well is placing the authority for decision-making in the hands of the manager. Not HR, not the CEO — the managers at every level. “Organisations can create a very democratic approach to remote work, a very individualised approach to hybrid work, by not setting global rules.”

Why? Because the most effective balance of workplaces and styles may well be different from team to team.

“Managers have the freedom to decide what is needed in conversation with their teams,” he says. “They might say you don’t need to come in for three months, but we need you there for these two weeks because of a particular project we have on that needs a lot of collaboration.”

This is a much more diverse solution — and is likely to work better than trying to impose a single standard on everyone.

Dealing with immature management

Few organisations have tried this. “But, in theory, it’s absolutely the best approach,” he says. “In practice, one barrier is the maturity of managers. Almost half of managers don’t feel comfortable talking about the mental health of their people, or about discrimination. Putting all of this power in the hands of these individuals can make this a risk. But, where the maturity is in place, this is what I would consider best practice.”

And you can help managers develop those skills through training. “That fact that, pre-COVID, only 50% know with crystal clarity what was expected of them shows that managers are not good at setting expectations.” Germany is actually one nation that is exceptionally good at this dimension of management, even if its managers are less good at a culture of recognition.

Many managers struggle to do this, and lack confidence in their own skills. “So part of the solution has to be about helping managers to do this better, in their own style, in line with whom they naturally are,” says Pa.

“No manager wakes up and wants to give bad, unclear feedback. 97% of managers think they’re doing a good job, but 70% of employees think their managers suck…”

Hugging the management system

“You need a system that nudges the organisation towards the behaviours we want,” says Pa. “To give you an example, we asked 300,000 managers around the world why and how they became a manager, it won’t surprise you to know that number one was excellence in their non-managerial role. How we’re selecting managers is setting them up for failure.”

The promotion system itself is not conducive to allowing good management to emerge.

“We need a system that selects the right managers, holds them accountable, and then promotes the right people,” he says. “Then management became something that they naturally do as part of their role, not something that is forced on them.”

The happiness conundrum

Is measuring employee happiness part of the solution?

“I, personally, would have no interest in measuring happiness, to be honest,” he says. “A happy employee can be happy doing nothing… I want committed, engaged, enthusiastic employees. Happiness doesn’t necessarily translate into performance. As we think about the emotions that do, and how we measure those, well, we pride ourselves on the science of asking questions. And it’s rather complicated to capture what makes people feel fulfilled in their work and their personal lives.”

We often assume things matter when they don’t. People expressing satisfaction with their salary seems like an obvious measure of work engagement. But there’s no real link between pay, satisfaction and performance in the data — unless you’re paying substantially below average, in which case it becomes frustrating for your staff.

A friend and a colleague

So, what feelings and experiences do translate into high well-being and performance? “The metric we defined, which is called K-12, boils this down to basic needs around clarity of expectations, feeling empowered to do my job and to elements like feeling you have a manager who cares about you.”

It also looks at the degree to which people consider themselves to have a best friend at work. This idea is somewhat controversial in countries like France and Germany, which traditionally have more defined boundaries between their working and their home lives. While this has its advantages, the lack of bonding and connection between teams tends to put companies from these countries on the back foot in terms of innovation and paradigm shifts.

But here, things are changing. 40% of German workers now have a best friend at work. And in the era of hybrid and remote work, we might well need more of them.

This is a summary of an interview with Pa Sinyan conducted by Ina Feistritzer and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 30th June 2022. You can catch up with Pa and his work on LinkedIn and Twitter.