The manager-employee relationship is the most important relationship in your organization. Strong relationships between managers and their direct reports encourage employees to grow and develop in their role, support them to tackle new challenges, and rally the high levels of motivation that lead to long-term employee engagement.
Developing the right people management skills is a combination of practice and experience — they’re a muscle that need to be honed and strengthened over time. But when you get the core skills right, it paves the way to a high-performing team with trust, collaboration, and empathy at its core.
Here are seven people management skills worth flexing.
1. Demonstrating Trust
Showing and telling employees you trust them is a great way to empower them and give them a sense of ownership in their work. In fact, it’s the only way that your employees will become confident taking on challenges. But remember that building trust doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a long-term strategy that relies on continually demonstrating that you respect your employees and believe in their ability to perform.
- Keep your promises to employees. You will lose your employees’ trust if you keep telling them things that never come to fruition. Be realistic with your team as you let them know you’ll step up to bat to help them achieve their goals.
- Give your employees space and time to complete their tasks. Nothing screams “I don’t trust you” like the manager who checks in about a task on the hour, every hour. If it is a task an employee can handle, let them handle it. If they do need help, offer guidance to help them build their problem-solving skills rather than micromanaging.
- Support reasonable risks. When an employee wants to challenge themselves and take on a new project, propose a new idea or expand their skill set, help them take those next steps. This shows you believe in their abilities and ideas.
- Explain the reasoning and data behind decisions and evaluations. Keeping your decision-making process in a black box erodes trust between you and your employees — it makes decisions seem arbitrary and authoritarian. Instead, focus on being transparent and providing good communication.
2. Giving Compassionate (and Honest) Feedback
Giving meaningful feedback is one of the most important people management skills. It makes direct reports feel good, builds trust and transparency, and empowers employees to focus on the skills and competencies they need to improve as part of their professional growth.
Plus, research on supervisory coaching has found that when leaders focus on giving developmental feedback as part of the performance management process, it can boost employee retention.
So what makes for effective feedback? The trick is in how you structure and deliver it:
- Make feedback clear, specific, and actionable. Whether feedback is positive or developmental, making it land with your direct reports relies on giving specifics of how they behaved, what the outcome was, and what they can do. If your feedback is too vague, employees won’t be able to connect it back to what they actually did, or the next steps they can take.
- Focus on emotional intelligence. Feedback can often feel really personal — which is why your delivery must be empathetic and objective. According to a 2022 study, brutal honesty or harsh criticism when an employee makes a mistake or underperforms actually makes us less receptive to changing our behavior, because it harms psychological safety. Instead, focus on being frank, but supportive: Nurture employees’ genuine interest in their work, and support them in taking next steps.
- Prepare feedback ahead of time. In-the-moment feedback can be effective for praise, but it’s less effective for constructive criticism. Principles from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor can help here: When offering constructive feedback, be direct and honest, but frame it from a place of caring about the employee, their progression, and career development. Write out a plan before sharing feedback, be honest with what employees need to improve, and praise where they did well and offer concrete steps for improvement. Your employees will be receptive to your feedback, rather than defensive.
- Practice self-awareness. Feedback is a two-way process that depends on open communication. To build a strong feedback culture, managers must check in regularly with their direct reports for constructive feedback on how they can improve. This will not only build trust, but also create a foundation for stronger team relationships.
3. Motivating Others
Motivating others is a critical leadership skill. Because after all, if your employees don’t feel enough trust or motivation to follow your lead, then they’re never going to perform at their best — either individually or as a team.
But motivating your team members isn’t about subscribing to a specific leadership style. Effective people management is more about encouraging employees (and other peers) to change their behavior. This requires creating the right work environment and norms that empower people to do their best work:
- Explain the big picture around decisions. Stepping into a leadership role is about making decisions. But a good manager isn’t autocratic — they’re able to tap into what makes someone tick and present decisions in a way that makes employees not only understand, but care. For direct reports, this might mean framing a new assignment in terms of professional development or career advancement. At a team level, honing this skill creates alignment by reaffirming how everyone works together on a project.
- Safeguard employee wellbeing. Wellbeing is critical to motivation at work. And according to a study on leadership behavior and employee wellbeing, for example, leaders play an important role in employees’ overall wellbeing and sense of thriving at work, which contributes to higher levels of motivation, job satisfaction, and psychological wellbeing. Checking in regularly on key factors around employee wellbeing — such as work-life balance and mental health — with surveys is essential. However, fostering psychological safety around discussing wellbeing at work is essential for making teams feel supported and motivated.
- Encourage autonomy, with support. Autonomy is a key building block of employee engagement, because it nurtures our sense of intrinsic motivation — our desire to do something simply because we find it interesting or exciting. Keeping employees motivated as a leader means proactively giving them the trust and autonomy to decide (within reason) how best to approach their work and make decisions that work for them.
4. Giving Credit
Knowing when and how to attribute credit and give praise is important — and requires more than just shouting out “good work!” at an all-hands meeting.
This starts with keeping tabs on what work your employees are doing. While you don’t need to chart how they spend their every waking minute, a great manager knows exactly what projects their reports are working on, who they work with, extra initiatives they take, and where they spend their time.
Creating some team norms around recognition and praise will also help everyone feel recognized meaningfully:
- Know how employees like to be praised. Some of your direct reports will bask in the spotlight. The others? It makes their toes curl. Knowing when, where, and how an employee likes to be praised makes all the difference in how employees perceive and internalize their positive feedback. You can learn this by surveying your team, or asking in a one-on-one meeting.
- Celebrate big achievements publicly where possible. Knowing your employees’ preferences on praise is essential to make sure everyone receives recognition in a way that works for them. But don’t be afraid to push for public praise to recognize hard work when a team member deserves it. All-hands are one way to do it — but consider implementing a public praise wall if you know your employee might feel awkward receiving a shout-out in a meeting.
- Use one-on-ones to give real-time feedback. One-on-ones are a great opportunity to check in on day-to-day projects, but they’re also an essential part of building regular feedback loops. The regularity and informality of one-on-ones makes them ideal for delivering in-the-moment, specific, positive feedback on an employee’s recent behavior — meaning you can reward the behaviors you want employees to continue.
- Encourage peer recognition. Manager feedback may be helpful to shape employee performance, but peer recognition is an essential part of employee engagement — our workplace relationships play a huge role in our happiness on the job. Creating team norms around praise means that everyone feels encouraged to support and motivate one another, leading to higher engagement. Plus, according to a 2023 study on peer recognition, it can also increase employees’ teamwork and discretionary effort.
5. Distributing Work
Being able to give the right projects to the people who are interested in and ready for them is a key component of being a successful manager. When you have a clear picture of each role and each employee, distribution of tasks will seem much more obvious.
- Choose the right person — but focus on equal work distribution. When delegating work, you’re obviously going to pick the best person for the job. But if you’re constantly leaning on one or two contributors, then this may lead to burn-out — as well as resentment from both the people getting picked, and the people not getting picked. It could also mean you unintentionally discount an employee who has just the right skills for the job. Giving all of your employees an equal opportunity to work on new projects helps keep motivation and performance high.
- Provide opportunities to pitch in and learn. Distributing work isn’t just about making sure tasks get done — it’s just as much an opportunity for learning and professional growth. Giving employees the opportunity to pitch in for work is essential for fostering intrinsic motivation — but to foster growth, you can also implement a buddy or peer learning system where more junior employees shadow a colleague.
- Have clear rationale for how work is distributed. Without clear criteria around how people get picked to take the lead on a project or task, it could seem like you’re picking favorites. When delegating work, make sure you take into account the current workload and capabilities within your team, but also consider your skills gaps and current resources — it could be a great opportunity for a junior employee to step up to a new challenge.
6. Active Listening
When we talk about core soft skills any manager needs in their toolkit, good communication skills are often the first thing that comes up. But communication isn’t just about talking — it’s about listening.
Active listening is a non-judgmental way of communicating that focuses on how you engage with others, and actively seek to understand their point of view. It’s more than just hearing someone speak, and about actually hearing them from an interpersonal perspective.
Try the following tips to practice this skill:
- Intentionally focus on what your direct report is saying. Our busy brains can get the best of us sometimes — but when practicing active listening, the most important thing is that employees know you value and respect what they have to say. Maintain eye contact with the speaker, and offer non-verbal gestures to show you’re listening. Try to reserve any potential judgment until the employee is finished speaking.
- Reflect back what you heard. If an employee is baring their heart, one of the worst things you can do as a manager is utter a non-committal ‘uh-huh’ once they’re done. Repeat what an employee has shared, using phrases like, “What I’m hearing is…” to create alignment and make employees feel respected and heard. Ask follow-up questions where possible to clarify understanding.
7. Conflict Resolution
Even in the best organizations with the most supportive cultures, sometimes people just don’t see eye to eye. And whether it’s a case of a mild in-team dispute, a personality clash, or an issue that extends beyond your team, it’s your role as a manager to step in and mediate.
Conflict management is less about deciding the victor in a fight, and more about taking a balanced, neutral approach to identify the cause of an issue, help employees understand each other’s point of view, and offer strategies where possible to resolve the problem.
This comes down to emotional intelligence, open discussion, and asking the right questions:
- Model curiosity and empathy with the right questions. Emotional intelligence is a critical part of conflict management — especially in larger projects where there are more moving parts. Instead of leaning into the urge to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, managers must model curiosity and empathy, and instead focus on asking the right questions that help everyone establish a root cause behind the issue. For example, instead of asking: “Why was your project late?” ask “What blockers did you experience that made it hard to deliver on time?”
- Help employees find common ground on a problem. A 2020 study on conflict resolution in the classroom found that when teachers help students find a common ground through problem-solving and collaboration, it’s far more effective for overcoming a dispute. Translating this into a workplace context relies on encouraging employees to openly share their insight and perception on what happened to understand one another’s point of view, before working together to propose a mutual solution.
- Foster psychological safety. When psychological safety isn’t nurtured, employees don’t feel empowered to disagree with one another or take risks — meaning resentment can bubble under the surface and escalate conflict. Creating greater team psychological safety means enabling different ways for individuals to speak up — such as engagement surveys, one-on-ones, or in team retrospective meetings. It also depends on creating a set of team values and norms where everyone understands how to listen, respect, and value their peers.
Building a High-Performance Team with People Management
The more you know about your management style and your employees, the better you’ll be able to implement people management skills as a leader. These essential skills help managers get the best from their direct reports, upping the engagement, motivation, and trust needed to create a high-performing team.
And whether you’re a new manager or an experienced one, it’s important to remember that like any skill set, people management skills can be learned, practiced, and mastered over time.
Curious how you're doing so far? Download our free manager effectiveness survey template and ask your team for their direct feedback.