A short time ago I was doing a workshop in New Jersey. One of the participants asked me an interesting question before the workshop began. “Is there any relationship between the effectiveness of a leader and the number of direct reports they manage?”
I acknowledged that at Zenger Folkman we had never studied that issue specifically and asked, “What’s your theory?” She explained she had 10 direct reports and was very nervous about her 360-degree feedback.
“It’s so difficult to respond to the needs of all those people and keep everyone on track that I’m anticipating negative results,” she said. After receiving her feedback, it became apparent her fears were completely unfounded as she received one of the most positive reports I’ve ever delivered, which spurred my curiosity further to understand if there was a causal relationship here.
First, Zenger Folkman assembled a dataset with more than 54,000 leaders and measured their overall leadership effectiveness combined with the number of direct reports they selected as raters. We then ran a Pearson Correlation Coefficient between these two variables and found virtually no correlation (r = 0.005, Sig. = .278). We hoped this was not the case.
Our prior research has revealed a great deal of influence between an individual leader and the satisfaction and engagement of their direct reports. The graph below from the same data shows the relationship between a leader’s effectiveness and the discretionary effort of their direct reports. The bars on the graph represent the percentage of direct reports who are willing to do more than the basic requirements of their job. This metric is the key to productivity. When direct reports only want to do the minimal work possible to keep their job, productivity is low, but when they are motivated to exceed expectations, productivity increases substantially. Poor leaders (those at the bottom 10%), have only 15% while the best leaders have 70% of their direct reports that want to go the extra mile.
The implications of having no correlation between the number of direct reports and the effectiveness of leaders basically means that the size of a work group is basically random and not based on skill or leadership ability. If one were trying to maximize the effectiveness of an organization, they would assign the best leaders to have the most direct reports because the positive impact of the leader would impact more people. Giving the best leaders the most reports lets them significantly magnify the skills of an effective leader.
Poor leaders, conversely, would only have a few direct reports to minimize their negative impact.
Here’s another thing we observed: When we talk with people about the rational for the size of their workgroup, they inevitably start by saying, “The organization …” This was a great clue in the mystery of why there is no correlation between work group size and leader effectiveness. The decision on the size of work group associated with each manager is primarily based on what the organization needs rather than on the competence or passion of the manager. While the competence of leaders is frequently discussed in organizations, the perception of competence by the individuals themselves, their manager, and their level of actual competence are not often highly correlated.
The graph below shows the same study as above but with the addition of the perceptions of self-ratings and manager ratings of individual leaders. As is evident from the graph the self and manager ratings, we see low levels of correlation to discretionary effort.The direct reports are the group that are most affected by the skills of the individual leader in terms of discretionary effort.
In all, we have found there is a general lack of clarity in organizations around the competence of leaders. Manager and peer expectations differ from direct reports but getting a well-rounded assessment can go a long way toward matching up individual skills with work assignments where people can be successful. In most organizations, the process of giving assignments is little better than blindfolded people throwing darts. With correct assessment techniques, leaders and their managers are better informed about their level of competence and what it will take to substantially increase and improve their skills—a goal that is clearly worth striving for.
This article was written by Joseph Folkman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.