Eight essential skills of people managers

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

This article proposes a framework to evaluate the effectiveness of people managers. It concentrates on eight essential skill areas where organisations and HR professionals could focus their people-manager development efforts.

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.” (Steve Jobs)

From the Manager’s perspective, a great workplace is one where they:

  • ACHIEVE ORGANISATIONAL OBJECTIVES
  • with employees who GIVE THEIR PERSONAL BEST and
  • WORK TOGETHER AS A TEAM/FAMILY in an environment of TRUST

The above can only be achieved through good people management skills. An employee's relationship with his or her direct manager is one of the most important aspects in employee engagement and retention. It directly influences organisational efficiency and productivity by its impact on overall people morale and motivation.

People quit jobs for many reasons: low pay, long commute to work, poor physical work environment, family demands, lack of a career path, among other reasons. However, most research shows that the leading cause for ‘regretted leavers’ is a poor experience with their line manager/supervisor. In this respect, business success does not happen by chance; the best workplaces actively focus on the four people priorities that create company value: performance management, succession management, leadership development and capability building. As part of this focus, they actively invest in and develop people-managers as a lever of engagement - to retain, motivate, inspire and grow their greatest asset: their people. Managers who can fully engage and motivate their employees are a vital and an indispensable asset to those organisations that employ them.

Building people management skills
People management skills is something that we constantly hear a lot about, yet most HR professionals still find it very difficult to define. In the broadest sense, managers are responsible for achieving results through others.

Traditional people management has normally focused on punishment and reward, the ‘carrot and stick’ management style, or classical people management approaches that strictly rely on planning, organising, directing and controlling measures. These sometimes tend to treat employees as commodities, making it harder for them to shine, flourish and succeed.

Today approaches have changed; a manager’s responsibility concentrates on helping employees clear obstacles and inspiring them to achieve tangible results. People management skills are about forming and strengthening relationships, providing the right motivation, keeping the team on track with the right information, understanding the needs of an individual and helping people grow and achieve their goals.

Managing people does not come naturally. Not everybody can become a great people manager, it involves highly developed emotional intelligence skills (self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills, etc.), but coaching and training can definitely help. Most of the time, capable managers are not trained on these traits, they tend to develop their people skills as they go through their careers and learn from great bosses, which is good, but unfortunately, they also learm from bad ones. So how can we identify good role models?

Recognising Great People Managers is not difficult
It is important to have an objective evaluation process that recognises top managers in organisations. Managers tend to complain about not being recognised for their good work or protest about those poor-performing managers that get away with their poor judgement and bad performance. They say that some of these poor performers are good at managing upwards, at selling themselves in a positive manner to senior leadership - good personal marketing. However, this poor performance does not escape the attention of eagle-eyed employees and peers which unfortunately has a negative impact on the team’s overall employee engagement levels.
So, for an objective evaluation of people managers, it is a good idea to involve direct reports in the appraisal process. Team members can provide objective feedback to help managers understand how they’re doing and how they can further support direct reports. Managers will see where they are excelling and what areas to focus on for improvement; at an organisational level, HR professionals can evaluate what additional training will have the most positive impact on people’s performance. HR professionals will also identify which managers are strongest in certain areas, so HR managers can get their support to help with best practice sharing and coaching.

Measuring manager effectiveness
The aim of this feedback is to identify potential weaknesses to equip line-managers/supervisors with the necessary skills to direct teams and projects in the most efficient way.

While some people management skills will vary based on your industry or location, there are eight skills that are universal across nearly every work environment and organisational culture. These are:

1. KNOW

  • My line manager treats me with respect.
  • I trust my line-manager.

People-oriented managers, those who really care about their direct reports, invest the time to learn and understand each individual in their teams. They show genuine interest in people, not only about their wellbeing and success but more importantly, about all those personal factors that motivate each of them to act. Great people managers do this by regularly meeting with everyone in the team on a one-to-one basis to learn how they are doing both at work and outside work. They show an innate orientation and responsibility to look out for others. Managing is more than just demonstrating good people management skills; it is more about caring for people, about treating them with respect and dignity.

Great managers make the people they direct feel valued and supported. They take a personal role in what they are urging and directing each of their team members/direct reports to do. They feel they’re successful only when all the individuals they manage are successful.
Getting to know team members on a personal level allow managers to motivate people better by creating a culture of trust. Show interest in and concern for team members' success and personal wellbeing; show interest in people, get to know everyone in the team, build trust with them, understand their needs, offer employees freedom to manage the balance between work and their personal lives.

2. DEVELOP

  • My line manager develops people's abilities.
  • My line manager gives me regular feedback on my performance.

Great people managers organise employees, not just to maximise efficiency, but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results. They recognise employees’ skills and determine and what support they need to effectively perform their job and reach their full potential.
Managers who are good mentors/coaches concentrate their energy into developing the people they work with as well as meeting business objectives. They take time to discuss people’s long-term career aspirations and help employees understand all possible options and paths available to them within and outside the organisation.

Providing feedback on a regular basis is a very powerful strategy to become and stay informed about what's happening with individual team members. All great people managers provide honest performance feedback to their team members. The manager may explain what tasks the employee performs well and highlight those areas that can be improved. Effective managers will not just evaluate an employee's work, they will write a development plan for the employee to help improve his/her performance.

3. SUPPORT

  • My line manager provides adequate support for me in my job.
  • My line manager is available when needed.

Great people managers work closely with their teams to help them remove those obstacles that impede tasks being completed. Managers with the appropriate technical skills and related work experience definitely add value to their teams. Their industry knowledge, experience, reputation and networks should guide and support all employees whom they oversee, helping them to achieve smoother outcomes and higher levels of success.

This specific people management skill also involves problem-solving, conflict resolution, supporting team members who are under stress, being a good coach and mentor, being always available, ensuring people succeed with allocated tasks and having the necessary technical skills that help advise the team. They help team members get workable outcomes from their one-to-one meetings. They understand the challenges the team face and have the necessary skills to help devise solutions. They let employees know that they are there for them. They offer people the necessary confidence to reach out and ask for help and, if necessary, even work alongside the team to ensure success.

4. INSPIRE

  • My line manager inspires me to do my best work.

Great people managers are defined by their actions not their words. It is always better to show rather than tell when it comes to work ethic, values and behaviours. Great people managers hold themselves to the highest standards so that their teams will have a clear example of what they should strive for. Exhibiting high standards earns respect. Honesty, integrity and commitment are outstanding values that when combined with effective people management skills encourage others to follow and demonstrate the same behaviours.
They actively encourage their people, they motivate and offer purpose at work, they always innovate, generate fresh ideas, redesign processes for increased productivity or functionality, and create an overall great employee experience for everyone. Managers who are effective inspire and help people stay motivated to do their best work.

5. INVOLVE

  • My line manager involves me in making decisions that affect our work.
  • My line manager assigns tasks that are well suited to my skills and abilities.

Empowering and delegating tasks effectively have a very motivating effect on people; it boosts team spirit as well as confidence, it makes teams more productive and allows managers to work on tasks that require greater attention on their part.
Great people managers foster innovation by empowering their teams to take ownership of projects and make decisions, learn from failures and achievements. They don’t micromanage people – they develop trust with team members. They ensure people are active participants in business/workplace decisions and do not simply follow orders. They delegate and distribute work fairly and appropriately - e.g. they don’t overload one person, they consider who has the time and right experience, they allocate tasks and set schedules keeping in mind people’s capacity and development goals. Especially when it comes to implementing organisational change, being part of the decision-making grows a sense of ownership and commitment to achieving a goal. Ownership creates more passion, dedication and loyalty. When employees are trusted to do things right, they feel indebted; they will not want to disappoint.

6. RECOGNISE

  • My line manager gives me recognition for a job well done.

Employee recognition is one of the most powerful forms of feedback that managers can provide. Great people managers acknowledge and offer appreciation for good work and discretionary effort, for going the extra mile. They celebrate and show proper appreciation not only for individual but also for team achievements. Great managers create goals and action plans for employee recognition. They evaluate the actions, behaviours, approaches and accomplishments that will make their teams more productive and efficient. Whichever motivation methods are used or practised, great people managers make it a ritual and not just a ‘once off’.
They establish strong criteria for what makes an employee eligible for recognition. Fairness, clarity, consistency and full transparency are important aspects in employee recognition. People need to see that each person who makes the same or a similar contribution has an equal likelihood of receiving recognition for their efforts. They ensure their recognition efforts do not become immediate expectations or entitlements. Great managers ensure recognition has meaning by matching effort to results – they avoid automated recognition systems where one size fit all. They provide recognition immediately when an employee performs positively. Timely recognition enhances employees’ positive feelings and confidence in their ability to perform well.

7. MANAGE

  • My line manager allocates resources effectively.
  • My line manager plans ahead to ensure we avoid problems.

As discussed, effective management skills must first and foremost be about getting things done rather than making it harder for people to perform. Great managers co-ordinate internal resources, people (e.g. discipline, poor performance, internal conflict) and workload effectively. They always ensure performance standards are maintained. They demonstrate resourcefulness in the face of a problem by anticipating potential issues before they arise. They identify factors contributing to problems by interpreting critical data rather than relying on politics or gut feelings to make decisions. They ensure effective internal planning and co-ordination to mitigate unnecessary or last-minute work for team members. In this respect, resource allocation is vital in effective business planning. It involves working out exactly which resources your business is going to need to achieve its specific objectives. This may be financial resources, equipment or fixed assets and, most importantly, people.

8. LEAD

  • My line manager provides a clear sense of direction.

Great people managers have a clear understanding of the organisation’s vision and share it with the people in their team in a way that motivates them. They keep their team fully informed and up-to-date on what is happening in the organisation. They ensure the vision and strategy of the organisation is translated into an actionable vision and strategy for the team. They offer clear, achievable and realistic objectives. They help their team members understand how their specific roles contribute not only to the wider organisation’s success but also to greater societal significance and value (Read more: Corporate Social Responsibility). Employees need their managers not to just assign tasks but define purpose and direction. Being a great people manager means being aware of what is on the horizon and keeping your team heading in the right direction.

COMMENTS QUESTION:
The proposed opinion survey statements should be complemented with qualitative insights as well. I suggest including one open-ended question at the end of the survey. It will allow employees to offer additional insights about their line-managers. Text-based data sources are a key factor for any organisation to understand the ‘why’ and act on them to make improvements.
I would suggest the following open question:

  • If you could ask your line manager to do one thing to support you and enable you to do your job to the best of your ability, what would that be?

The proposed open-ended question offers employees a forum to make suggestions and present innovative ideas. Employees appreciate the oportunity to have the chance and freedom to answer exactly how they want, in their own words - of course assuming that their opinions will be heard [and potentially acted on]?

Final Thoughts…
These eight essential skills give you a good idea of what it takes to become a great people manager. An element that is common to all these skills is communication: understanding others, service orientation, leveraging diversity, political awareness, influence, conflict management, building bonds, collaboration and co-operation among other interpersonal traits.
Nowadays managers need to lead employees who, in many instances, have nothing in common with each other, people with different skills, professional, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, but who are expected to bring something unique to the team and wider organisation. Thus, under these circumstances, a communicator who can provide clear instructions, expectations and common goals for his/her team is a crucial element for success. So it is not surprising contemporary business approaches are more focused on the manager’s ability to motivate, empower and enable people. Employers appreciate their managers’ abilities in relationship-building, networking and their capacity to create a more productive and enjoyable workplace for their teams.

I trust we all agree that being a great people manager can be a challenge most of the time, and to succeed in such a position, managers need to understand and accept that their success is directly



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