Managers sit at a juncture at which there lies great opportunity for positive contribution in the world. Our managers make a disproportionate difference in our happiness, engagement, and performance at work. As we look back on our careers so far, almost all of us can point to a teacher, mentor, or manager whose skillful commitment to our success made a profoundly positive impact in our lives. Conversely, we can also almost all highlight an experience with a team or a manager that depleted us to almost critical levels.
A few years ago, my friend Michael was a star student in the MBA program here at the Ross School of Business. With a winning personality, an engineering degree, work experience at one of the top internet companies, and now an advanced degree from a prestigious business school, Michael had the pick of employers to choose from upon graduation. He decided to join a prominent West Coast tech company, and was seemingly destined for great things.
Less than a year later, Michael was asking himself – and me – the question of how long he could tough it out before leaving. He was already out in the community, networking and exploring options. The company hadn’t exactly changed from the one he fell in love with in the selection process. But his manager was an archetypal bad boss – controlling, micro-managing, power-hungry, fostering toxic behaviors and distrust among team members.
The saying is true: people join companies and leave managers. Many of us have discovered this to be true at some point in our own careers. Michael saw out the time needed to retain his full signing bonus, and is now very happily working for an up-and-coming startup. I was sad that Michael’s stint there hadn’t worked out, but relieved my friend was heading to greener pastures. I was sad for the company and the manager for missing out on such great talent, especially having done the hard work of attracting him to join them in the first place.
Every year, Gallup rolls out its State of the Global Workforce report. The findings are always fascinating, and understandably slow-changing. Consistently more than 70% of the global workforce, by Gallup’s reckoning, are either disengaged or actively disengaged. This equates to more than $400 billion lost from the US economy on an annual basis. To give some idea of the scale we are talking about, that’s the equivalent of the profits of the ten most profitable companies in the world disappearing from our global balance sheet.
But it is not all doom and gloom. At the Ross School of Business, our mission is to develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world. We define “positive” in this context as creating economic value, building great workplaces, and being good neighbors. While the three are completely interrelated, the work of the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross emphasizes the catalytic importance of architecting places where people can bring their best selves to work. We look primarily at the organizational architecture: how structures, systems, strategies, processes, practices, and culture can all be re-imagined to help people thrive. Financial success and impact on our communities are two other sides of this virtuous triangle of Positive Business.
We are passionate about the role of educators in making a difference, and we view developing skilled, energizing, and compassionate managers as a leverage point for change. Classes taught by our core faculty attracted more than 1500 students. We do not want any of our students to be on the receiving end of what Michael experienced. Furthermore, we are challenging them to be the change we want to see in the world; to be the managers who allow millions of Michaels to thrive, not to trample them down.
Thankfully, we know we are not alone. There are over 200 self-identifying members of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Community of Scholars, drawing from many other top business schools around the US and around the world. These are researchers and professors who are aspiring to the same goal – to help leaders build organizations that bring out the best in people. Collectively, we educate tens of thousands of business students each year. We are grateful that initiatives such as Great Work Cultures is helping to build a big tent for this movement. Together, we can truly build a new world of work.
Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations and Adjunct Faculty at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.