“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.” — Galileo

Where do you find the highest levels of employee retention and productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability? According to a major Gallup study (of more than 1.5 million employees across more than 87,000 divisions or work units), the answer can be found in how positively team members respond to 12 key indicators of the health of their workplace. These statements include factors such as recognition, clarity of goals, opportunities to use individual strengths, and having effective tools and equipment. Other indicators identify how much people feel cared for, whether their opinions count, personal growth opportunities, regular progress reviews, the team’s commitment to doing quality work, and whether the organization’s mission or purpose make the team member feel important. A more surprising factor that impacts the workplace is whether team members feel they have a best friend at work.

Curt Coffman, co-author of First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently and Follow this Path: How the World’s Greatest Organizations Drive Growth by Unleashing Human Potential, challenges the well-worn phrase “People are our greatest asset.” Instead, the Gallup research shows the phrase is only partially correct: “The truly engaged and talented people that come to work every day are the real asset of your company…the best managers are persistent in creating environments where employees can strongly agree with the items in Gallup’s employee engagement survey.”

The Gallup research clearly shows that team member performance and productivity depends on growth and development that takes place at a “local” level – that is, the coaching provided by leaders who influence people directly. In other words, strong local leaders are able to build an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Or a weak manager can produce very poor results despite a positive and successful organizational culture. As Gallup’s John Thackray explains, the factors have “a common ingredient: remediability. [They] address a condition that is within the capacity of managers and workers to change together, as a team initiative. Fate and acts of God are sidelined.”

There’s an old saying that teaches, “The clearer the target, the surer the aim.” It’s common sense: We can’t achieve top-level performance if we’re not clear about what it looks like. But however obvious this critical coaching strategy may seem, many managers fail to practice it. Writing about this problem in theHarvard Business Review, in what they describe as “The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome,” Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux report that “It is the bosses themselves – albeit unintentionally – who are frequently responsible for an employee’s subpar achievement.” This is typically due to a lack of clarity in performance targets or standards, roles, and responsibilities. In our own consulting practice, we have also found that confusion in these areas is a primary cause of job dissatisfaction.

Effective coaches are masters at working with people to set the performance bar very high while aligning organizational, customer, and team needs with the individual’s personal goals. While jobs may be shifting and roles evolving to meet changing conditions, a strong leader will get everyone involved in an ongoing process of redefining and resetting roles and goals. Strong leaders build upon successes and string together small wins to boost confidence about what can be achieved.

As shown in the Gallup study, strong leaders give people a chance to do what they do best every day. Marcus Buckingham, co-author of First, Break all the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths, explains that great managers help people “develop their natural talents to such an extent that their areas of weakness become irrelevant… with the aim of elevating each person’s performance to its highest possible levels… [strength-building] is what real development is all about.”

“The test of a good manager is to make ordinary people perform better than what seems to be their capability, to bring out the strengths they have, and to use each employee’s own internal desires to inspire them to greatness.”— Luke De Sadeleer and Joseph Sherren, Vitamin C for a Healthy Workplace

Dwelling on our own or others’ weaknesses rarely improves them. And it sure doesn’t do much for self-confidence, passion, or commitment. Like a good football coach who has different running backs for long- and short-yardage plays, a strong leader finds people whose strengths most closely match the requirements of the role (and whose weaknesses are less important) in a given situation. Rather than defining the ideal role and trying to find a perfect person to fit it, effective leaders find someone who meets most of the key criteria. He or she then tailors the responsibilities to align with the individual’s strengths.