People management is, first and foremost, about building relationships with your direct reports. A strong manager-direct report relationship can give your direct reports the motivation and support they need to work hard, grow and develop in their role, and tackle new challenges in their field. The particular skills a manager needs to develop these relationships can be honed through practice and experience. The five people management skills in this article will help any manager grow their relationship with their team and better serve their employees.
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 grow and become confident taking on challenges. Building trust is a long-term strategy that necessitates continued work over time. This means:
- Keep your promises to employees. Like the boy who cried wolf, 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 that 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 by making your decisions seem arbitrary and authoritarian. Instead, focus on being transparent and providing good communication.
Trust doesn't happen overnight. It's about continually demonstrating that you respect your employees and believe in their ability to perform.
2. Giving Compassionate (and Honest) Feedback
One of the most important people management skills is the ability to give useful, welcome feedback. You have to be straight with employees, and they want to hear feedback from their managers — but you don't have to be unnecessarily harsh.
Unfortunately, there's a prevalent strain of thought that says the best way to give constructive feedback is by being “brutally honest,” but that can cause people to shut down rather than feel ready to improve. Instead, successful managers deliver criticism in a way that employees feel the genuine interest in their work and well-being — they feel supported and prepared to take next steps, not like they've been insulted.
“Rude doesn’t equal honest, and empathetic doesn’t mean watered-down. [...] It’s possible, and more effective, to deliver that criticism respectfully and factually,” says Dave Feldman, VP of Product Design at Heap, an analytics automation company. If you find yourself wanting to criticize harshly when an employee makes a mistake or underperforms, take a step back before addressing the problem. Psychology Today recommends that immediately jumping to reprimand is more about making yourself feel better than it is helping others — that “honesty is often a veiled form of self-indulgence.”
A well-developed model that might help you move away from “brutal” honesty is Kim Scott's idea of radical candor — feedback that is direct and honest, but comes from a place of caring about that employee, their progression and professional development. The next time you need to offer constructive feedback, write out a plan for yourself before talking to them. Be honest with what they need to correct, but praise where they did well and offer concrete steps for improvement. Your employees will be receptive to your feedback, rather than defensive.
3. Motivating Others
People management means encouraging employees (and superiors) to change their behavior, and this requires knowing how to motivate people.
Even the most loyal employees don't want to blindly do whatever the leader says. Instead, you want to help them approach growing and developing as employees as personal problem solving. You have to know how to craft and present a reasoning or argument for any given decision to motivate your team to work together and move forward. It can be a great way to reaffirm the big picture — how everyone works together to create something — and to show how everyone has a role in making things happen.
Motivating employees is a skill that stems from an acute awareness of your emotions and your employees' emotions and also from an ability to articulate logic clearly. Motivation requires both of these — emotion without logic is manipulation and logic without emotion is bound to be ignored.
Instead, a good manager needs to be able to tap into what makes someone tick and present their decisions in a way an employee will understand. For those underneath you, that might mean framing a new project assignment in terms of professional development or career advancement. For someone above you, that might mean explaining the need for a new hire through long-term profitability. In both instances, getting to know the people you work with gives you important insights into motivating others at any level of the company.
4. Giving Credit
Knowing when and how to attribute credit and give praise is important and 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 good leader knows what projects their reports are on, who they work with, extra initiatives they take and where they spend their time. This can come from a variety of places, from 1:1 meetings to project management software.
Then, it's time to make sure employees feel seen and appreciated for their work. The key here is understanding who prefers private praise and who prefers public praise. Knowing your employees and their preferences are important and ensures that they feel comfortable.
But don't be afraid to push for public praise when a team member deserves it, especially if it is in the context of a formal recognition — just be sure that you aren't putting an employee on the spot or causing them embarrassment. Knowing when, where and how an employee likes to be praised can make all the difference here: give a heads up or check in before rolling full steam ahead.
5. Distributing Work
Divvying up work isn't just on-paper project management — it's also about people and their development. What is someone's role? What interests them the most? Which important skills do they need to learn to advance? 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.
One big thing to watch out for is equal distribution of work. You want direct reports to be challenged and everyone to be moving forward. If you lean too heavily on your high-performers, they will burn out, and resentment will breed from both sides — those who feel they're being passed over for opportunities and those who feel they're being piled on.
And use your motivating powers to help employees be excited about their work and not stress when they're passed over for certain projects. Explaining why you're delegating work the way you are, especially with special assignments, keeps an even keel and reminds people you're distributing work for a reason, not playing favorites or dumping work around.
Knowledge is power
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 pull the most from those underneath them, upping engagement and productivity and making for a more effective team. And wherever you are in your management journey, it's important to remember that like any skill set, people management skills can be learned, practiced, and mastered.