People Managers: The Funnel Point—and Power Supply—of Culture Change in 2024

The mantra that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers, has always been true. Much like a classroom teacher to a student, a person’s people manager is the biggest factor in how an employee perceives and experiences an organization. This has always been the case, but in this era of hybrid, distributed work, the manager is an even more powerful funnel point of culture than before. 

Of course, as a concept, culture is not easy to define. At Gagen MacDonald, we think of it as the collective experience of all the bits of information that employees receive both directly and indirectly from their company. We analyze and drive culture through “Six Levers”: Values, Energy, Behaviors, Symbols, Systems and Communication. These help develop a holistic, structured vantage on what employees experience. Looking through the lens of these Six Levers, one can see why managers have become even more important in this post-pandemic environment. 

Before the pandemic, aspects of the physical office influenced all the Levers. A room full of hammocks, low-lighting and pleasant white noise could have served as a powerful shaper of energy and a symbol for employees that rest was encouraged. Artifacts throughout the office could have reinforced the values and perspectives of leaders. And even beyond physical objects, the moments we all shared with a wide breadth of coworkers—many of them beyond our immediate teams—helped employees calibrate to each other and the broader organization’s pulse. 

Today, many of those aspects of the physical office have lost sway. Businesses are doing important work to try to recreate some of these things in the digital workplace, but the fact is that C-Suite leaders with distributed employees have even less control over what employees see and do each day than they did in the past. We can’t control how people set up their home offices; we can’t rely on the café to connect remote employees to the organization’s energy. In hybrid setups, we’re seeing that team dynamics take up even more of the stage in how people experience culture. People managers aren’t just managing work; they are bringing culture to life, for better and for worse, through their words, their actions and how they direct their teams’ attention. 

In my view, this shift is not inherently good or bad. It’s simply a new reality. To stay ahead of it, organizations seeking to change or fortify their cultures in 2024 can: 

  1. Double down on investments in manager training.More and more companies today are approaching us about upskilling managers, be it through training to deliver stronger feedback, to better acknowledge employees’ successes or to foster stronger development and coaching opportunities. Across this work, we’re seeing repeatedly how getting the micro moments right can deliver macro change. 
  2. Build connecting with employees into people managers’ job profiles. Right now, many middle managers are feeling overwhelmed, and that is having a ripple effect throughout culture. Giving people managers the time to provide individualized attention and support to those they manage is not a fluffy nice-to-have; it’s a true business imperative. 
  3. Approach culture as a sum of micro gestures. I often think of organizational culture like a long, ongoing braid. C-Suite leaders can set the style or direction of the braid at a high level, but ultimately, its strength will come down to the little moments of weaving—to how tightly and consistently the threads come together. 

In our Let Go & Lead interview, Amy Edmondson lays out great examples of what I mean by micro gestures. She notes that managers who promote psychological safety do three things well: they give employees explicit encouragement to speak up, they ask questions and they respond well when people are open and candid. 

Imagine if you really got all of your middle managers to do these three things well this year. How much more effective would your people and teams be?