7 daily habits of the best managers

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, Senior Editor

The role of managers has changed significantly over the years, management experts say. In the past, managers were mostly responsible for ensuring that work got done, and correctly. Now, managers are responsible for engaging and retaining employees, and their responsibilities include coaching and mentorship. 

Yet many organizations expect new managers to figure out how to communicate and motivate on their own. As a result, the leaders who end up being successful tend to be those who are avid learners, regularly looking for ways to improve.

We combed through recent management articles to identify the most common advice. Here are the most frequently cited habits of great leaders, based on research into successful team captains, Forbes 100 organizations, and highly engaged Google employees, as well as the experiences of tenured leaders and leadership coaches.

1. They set similar expectations for themselves and their employees

The managers who worked the most hours tended to have employees who put in extra hours, too, according to research by Nina Shikaloff and Ryan Fuller of Microsoft into two Forbes 100 organizations. But they also found that employees of more-utilized managers were also 5% more engaged than their less-utilized colleagues and 2% to 4% more engaged than their colleagues who worked for less-utilized managers.

A similar habit can be found among the best team captains, according to Sam Walker, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, who in 2017 researched what the most successful team leaders in sports history had in common. As an example, Walker points to Jack Lambert, the 1970's defensive captain of the Pittsburgh Steelers who refused to change a bandage on his hand so that his team would see the blood on his uniform as an inspiring example of resilience.

2. They assign equal amounts of work to each employee

Employees that work 120% longer than their colleagues are 33% more likely to be disengaged at work and twice as likely to view their managers unfavorably, according to Fuller and Skikaloff's research.

"It is a core function of a manager to allocate work across their team," Fuller and Shikaloff wrote in a Harvard Business Review article summarizing their findings. "This finding clearly shows that uneven allocation leads to disengaged employees."

3. They build relationships across the organization

The managers with the widest networks had 5% more engaged employees, Fuller and Shikaloff found. Employees of well-connected managers also tend to have much broader networks than the employees of less-connected managers.

Collaborating across the organization is one of the two most important habits of high-performing leaders, according to research from Google. Managers who received higher scores in collaboration and the other habit (decisiveness) tended to see fewer employees quit within the next year, received higher scores on satisfaction surveys, and enjoyed better performance from their teams.

4. They regularly meet with employees face-to-face

There seems to be no such thing as too much face time. Fuller and Shikaloff found that employees who spend twice as much time with their managers than their peers were 67% less likely to be disengaged at work. But employees who rarely see their managers or receive insufficient training were four times more likely to be disengaged at work and twice as likely to view their managers unfavorably.

Walker's research found a similar habit among successful team captains. They don't make the grand speeches you see in sports movies, he says. But they are good at understanding their team members' communication styles and telling them what they need to hear. They also tend to communicate with individual team members one-on-one more often than they communicate with the full team as a group.

Read more: 3 topics the best bosses discuss regularly with their employees

5. They know when to delegate

Employees who have disengaged managers have disengagement rates twice as high as employees whose managers are more engaged, Fuller and Shikaloff found.

Managers often feel stretched thin, and worry that it holds them back from being as effective as they could be. The solution is to delegate more, says Butch Ward, a senior faculty member and former managing director at the Poynter Institute. He encourages managers to focus their time on the tasks that only they can do and to rigorously set aside time for working toward long-term goals. Most likely, everything else can be delegated.

6. They're decisive, but open to new ideas

As mentioned above, Google has found that decisiveness is one of the two most important habits of high-performing leaders. But striking the right balance of decisiveness and openness can be tricky, according to Amy Jen Su, an executive coach and co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.

She recommends choosing what stance you will take before an important meeting or discussion and preparing to articulate why you think the way you do. Then, at the meeting, she recommends taking time to understand other perspectives, asking questions and providing feedback. And let your team know if you change your stance.

7. They recognize what a situation needs and adapt to it

Over and over, management experts say great leaders are flexible. For example, Walker found that great team captains stay aware of the game they're playing and their own emotional response. Then, they either use their emotions as motivation—or ignore them if they're not helpful.

Great managers avoid one-size-fits-all solutions, says Jen Su. They take time to understand what motivates each member of their team, rather than assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things they are.

Most leaders think they're great managers. Their employees disagree.

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