It's a trick question: Gender doesn't matter, talent does.
About a third of all German workers would prefer to work for a male boss. Sexist? Sure. But gender doesn't dictate good people management skills, talent does. And German companies rarely recognize managerial talent in men or women.
All employees feel the impact of a good manager's ability to meet their needs and expectations -- or of a bad manager's incompetence. Almost half of all German workers, however, would prefer to choose a boss on the basis of gender.
That preference is biased, no question. But before rushing to judgment about sexism in Germany, recognize that very few German managers can be assessed on ability at all. That's because in Germany, good people management gets short shrift.
Gender Bias at Work
Most German workers (52%) say that their manager's gender doesn't make a difference to them, but of those who have a preference, many more would prefer a male (34%) to a female (14%) boss. And it isn't just men harboring that sentiment: While women are more likely than men to say that they prefer a female boss (18% vs. 10%), they are still most likely to say they would rather work for a man (40%) as are their male coworkers (30%).
However, we did not find a statistical difference in engagement between people with female managers (23% engaged) and those with male managers (18% engaged), showing that men and women do an equally poor job as managers. Nonetheless, those who work for women are more likely than those with male bosses to say that they would prefer a female boss (29% vs. 9%).
Evidently, gender prejudice can evaporate on contact with managerial talent. Good. But there's a catch: The talent to manage people is so undervalued that German workers may never see a talented female manager. Or a male one, for that matter.
How Not to Pick a Manager
In Germany, great managers are an exception, as shown by our most recent State of the Global Workplace report: Between 2014 and 2016, only 15% of workers were engaged at work (and 15% were actively disengaged) on average, with only one-fifth strongly agreeing that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. When they're asked if they had thought about leaving their current company due to their direct supervisor, significantly fewer engaged employees (3%) than actively disengaged employees (45%) answer "yes." Sixty-nine percent reported that they had at least one bad manager in their career. And 18% of actively disengaged employees are currently looking for a new job, as are only 1% of engaged employees. (Not entirely coincidentally, 97% of managers consider themselves to be a "good manager.") Meanwhile, actively disengaged employees cost Germany between 80 billion and 105 billion euros annually in lost productivity.
These facts cannot be blamed on managers or businesses. Management culture is at fault. Management education, particularly the MBA, focuses on financial and administrative processes and pays scant attention to the people who make those finances and processes work. That one-sided focus does not promote employee engagement. Moreover, many companies move employees into management whether or not they have an aptitude for managing people. When Gallup asked German managers why they believed they were hired for that role, 51% cited their experience and tenure in their company or field and 47% said it was due to success in a previous non-managerial role.
The Importance of Engagement
Experience, tenure and previous success are not the same as managerial talent. Experience and skills are important, but talent -- the naturally recurring patterns in which we think, feel and behave -- predicts performance. Companies need to select managers based on their talent to engage, care for and focus on each employee as an individual. Managers who consistently fail to engage their employees should be removed.
Selecting managers with the right talent to engage and manage employees is a leadership responsibility.