The Trouble With Leadership

Unless you’ve been hiding under a fairly large rock lately, you’ve no doubt heard that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was asked to resign from the company he co-founded, which went from a mere prototype in 2009 to a monster with a market valuation of $70 billion earlier this year. Of course, along with that (paper) wealth generation a whole lot of other things went on, including a series of ethically questionable decisions and allegedly rampant harassment and disrespect of workers by managers, including Kalanick and his direct reports.

Mr. Kalanick has plenty of company: Senior leaders in general are failing the grade, at least according to the employees who work for them. Less than half of U.S. employees (45 percent) have trust and confidence in the job being done by their organization’s top leaders, according to Willis Towers Watson’s latest Global Workforce Study. That’s down from 55 percent who expressed trust and confidence in their organization’s C-suite denizens for a similar study in 2014. Only 47 percent believe leaders have a sincere interest in employees’ well being, while just one in four (41 percent) think their organization is doing a good job of developing future leaders.

These low scores don’t bode well for an organization’s long-term success.

“The fact that a significant percentage of workers don’t believe their leaders are as effective as they can be is worrisome, given that strong leadership is a key driver of employee engagement,” says Laura Sejen, WTW’s managing director for Human Capital and Benefits. The Global Workforce Study includes survey responses from 3,015 U.S. employees from 441 American companies, out of a total of 31,000 employees and 2,004 companies from around the globe.

Employees tend to view their immediate managers much more favorably, the survey finds: 81 percent of U.S. workers say their managers treat them with respect, 75 percent say managers assign them tasks that are well-suited to their skills and abilities and 60 percent say their managers communicate goals and assignments clearly.

Unfortunately, there’s much room for improvement as well: Just a bit more than half (56 percent) say their managers make fair decisions about how performance is linked to pay and only half (50 percent) say managers have enough time to handle the “people aspects” of their job. Only 40 percent say their managers coach them to improve their performance.

What’s the solution? No clear-cut one, obviously, but it might be wise for HR leaders to help their organizations get serious about building a stronger pipeline of future leaders and helping current managers become better coaches.

“Given the increasingly important role that managers and supervisors are playing in defining the work to be done, motivating workers and ensuring a sufficient talent pipeline, many organizations are taking a keen interest in how manager behavior affects engagement and how managers can build more engaged teams,” says Patrick Kulesa, WTW’s director of employee research.