Blog Post

Why it’s time to reimagine the employee-manager relationship

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

HR’s approach to employee management has evolved over time: What was once “employee satisfaction” or “employee engagement” is now “employee experience.” This newest iteration is the most holistic approach yet, focused on offering employees everything from career development and fruitful work relationships to social impact opportunities.

But in addition to investing in entirely new programs to bolster the employee experience, organizations should also rethink existing processes. One of the most important for improving the employee experience is fruitful employee-manager relationships (ones where managers behave like coaches or mentors above all else). However, these roles have yet to be optimized to meet the needs of modern employees.

In fact, the ineffectiveness of typical management roles is becoming clear for business leaders and employees alike. A study from Boston Consulting Group found that more organizations are looking to get rid of managerial roles altogether — because teams are more productive, innovative and agile when self-directed. But the solution shouldn’t be to just get rid of them altogether: There’s too much value to be gained from managers in helping employees set goals, remove roadblocks and provide mentorship. To better meet employees’ new needs, managers need to become coaches in an employee’s career journey and development rather than simply the arbiters of that journey.

Meeting employee development needs

Employees’ learning and development have long been within the purview of managers, but research suggests today’s managers are struggling to keep up with the scope of their employees’ needs. Employees today are worried that their skill sets will fall behind technological advances and are looking to their managers to help them keep up. But in one survey, “more than 1 in 5 (22%) workers said their managers do not encourage or enable learning at all, and just 17% said their managers help create a plan or set goals for developing skills.”

Managers need to be more involved in learning, but it’s important that this involvement be collaborative. Employees today crave more control over their careers, but they are more likely to learn skills that align with their personal interests, experiences and goals. So rather than telling employees what to learn, managers should focus on having discussions around employee goals and aspirations — and then empowering employees to pursue learning opportunities from there.

How bidirectional feedback can help

To facilitate these collaborative conversations between employees and managers, I recommend managers lean into bidirectional feedback loops. That means not only is the manager regularly giving feedback to the employee about their development, but the employee is also giving feedback about how their manager is supporting and empowering them in their career journey.

This can take some getting used to but, as managers, it’s our job to get employees comfortable with it. Start by simply finding regular opportunities to prompt direct reports for their feedback. For example, after an important team meeting or client presentation, ask, “How was that? Do you think I could have done something differently?” Performing vulnerability can help here as well and will signal to your employees that they can behave candidly with you.

I also encourage managers to put the onus on employees to schedule and set the agenda for regular check-ins. This ensures these meetings are always focused on the discussion points important to the employee to give them more ownership over their career and development. When employees share which skills they want to learn, as well as their long- and short-term career aspirations, managers can help them to create a personalized development plan that’s aligned with their interests and goals — and coach them along the way.

The new and improved employee-manager relationship

There’s so much value in the mentorship and coaching that a manager can provide. Many employees crave this kind of connection — it can even be the reason they stay or leave a job. So the solution might not be getting rid of managers altogether. Instead, companies should focus on making sure they act as coaches for their employees’ learning and development. This will create more fruitful relationships, where both parties work together to reach their full potential.

This article was originally published on under Jeff Miller’s Forbes Human Resources Council column.

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