Managers who want to create high performing organizations can easily become overwhelmed by the hundreds of leadership qualities that the literature would suggest they should possess. However, actual workplace behavior indicates the need for a much narrower focus. I know from my own evaluations of employee training and development programs that a few competencies keep emerging as key to employee performance improvement. Now, a meta-analysis of studies of managers and employees supports this observation.

Jim Trinka, Chief Learning Officer for the FBI, examined a number of large scale surveys of manager effectiveness and employee performance in government and the private sector. Included in his review were studies by Corporate Executive Board’s Learning and Development Roundtable, the Gallup Q12™ analysis of responses from over 80,000 government employees, an Accenture survey of 1,000 CEOs, and a survey of 1,000 managers in one government agency. He concluded that managers don’t need to learn everything, only a few targeted behaviors. Trinka makes a compelling case for focusing managerial learning on improving “…performance management, employee development, and communication.” He wrote:

The results clearly show that managers have a much better chance of vastly improving employee performance by targeting their efforts on a much smaller list of activities. In fact, managers who set clear performance standards, become more knowledgeable about employee performance, and provide fair and accurate informal feedback on performance strengths can significantly improve individual performance.

This conclusion is quite significant. It means that to achieve performance improvement, managers don’t have to learn everything there is to know about leadership nor do they have to develop an elaborate performance evaluation and review system (categories, rankings, etc.). All they need to do is create a culture in which they pay attention to the strengths of their team members and, on an ongoing basis, communicate clear expectations for building on those strengths. It is this communication between managers and the people they supervise that will achieve important business results for the organization.