The Importance of Managers as Advocates

Advocacy can be a powerful tool to help managers boost employee productivity and retention.

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The past few years have profoundly changed expectations for managers. Leaders have had to adapt to managing teams across in-person, fully remote, and, in many cases, hybrid settings. They’ve been held to account for advancing critical goals focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And they’ve had to make sure work gets done amid unprecedented upheaval from the pandemic, supply chain constraints, and social unrest.

In the process of analyzing how companies have navigated these changes, my colleagues and I at RedThread Research spoke with a major retailer that has long kept its turnover especially low and frequently appears on lists of best places to work. One thing executives at the organization told us was particularly striking: Managers act not only as guides and coaches to employees but also as advocates.

In recent years, there’s been increasing discussion about the importance of managers as sponsors or mentors. When should they go a step further and advocate on behalf of their employees? After all, managers are accountable to the organization and have to balance the needs of employees with those of the business.

Through research and conversations with leaders at a wide array of companies, I’ve seen that advocacy can be a powerful tool for managers, boosting productivity and employee retention. It also improves relationships both inside and outside the organization, which helps the organization flourish.

Supporting Employees’ Goals for Themselves

One of the strongest areas where manager-employee advocacy shows up is in a career track. Traditionally, managers have looked to incentivize excellence by showing the opportunities and promotions that an employee can aspire to within their company or field. But employees don’t always want to stay on the same track.

Employees want learning and development opportunities that help them achieve their dreams.

Take the example of John, who entered his company as a financial analyst but really wants to make the jump to marketing. A manager acting as an advocate would ensure that John has the time and resources to develop marketing skills and would identify collaborative projects in which John could work with members of the marketing team. (An internal talent marketplace can be especially helpful in making this happen.) When possible, John’s manager would look for opportunities that would allow him to spend time embedded with the marketing unit. The manager might even help John make the move to the marketing department if a position became available, by providing a recommendation and giving him time to work on his application.

Such an approach requires some sacrifice — in this scenario, accepting the loss to the finance unit — but it will help the employee stay with the company. Numerous studies we’ve conducted show that employees want learning and development opportunities that help them achieve their dreams. In this respect, I call the role of managers “helping your people find their bliss.”

Sharing Networks

Much has been said about the importance of helping employees learn to grow their own networks. When managers act as advocates for their staff members, they go a step further as a connector by actively sharing their own networks with their employees.

The more employees get to know successful people both inside and outside of the company, the more people they have to turn to when they need ideas and solutions. Employees are then able to bring this wealth of ideas and solutions to their job, increasing innovation and creating new opportunities for growth within the company. For example, I saw this kind of connection-building lead two companies in different industries to hold a joint offsite event for their learning teams, where they shared similar challenges and helped each other develop solutions.

Sometimes these networks can lead an employee to be hired by another company. But in their new organization, they remain advocates for their previous employer, recommending it to employees there who are looking for new jobs. And the employees who left with good relationships with their managers often return as part of the boomerang employee phenomenon.

Advocacy for the Hybrid Era

Acting as an advocate is more important than ever now as businesses continue to weigh the possibility of forcing employees back to the office. Many people want to continue working remotely, but some are up against executives who have traditional views of how a business should operate. Take, for example, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently lambasted remote work.

The more employees see that their manager is in their corner, the more engaged they feel with the company.

While the idea still feels uncomfortable to some executives, working from home can increase productivity and employee satisfaction. It can also be a downright necessity, particularly to help usher women back into the workforce. Pew reports that remote work opportunities could make it easier for women to reenter the job market after many became full-time caregivers during the pandemic. To avoid losing top talent, managers will sometimes need to advocate for their employees to have the flexibility they seek.

Of course, there are limits. In the end, organizational structure determines the decision-making process, and managers have to follow the dictates of the C-suite. But even when these rules go against what the employee wants, managers can still demonstrate their advocacy by showing empathy for the employee’s situation and helping them work within the rules to come up with the best solution.

The more employees see that their manager is in their corner, the more engaged they feel with the company — and the more likely they’ll be to stick around.

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