Whether you're the CEO, intern, or new manager, knowing how to work with others is a key part of being successful at every job. But for new and experienced managers alike, knowing how to manage people and all their quirks and ambitions is a key part of you being successful at your job — and a key part of the company's success as well.
Luckily, people management skills — facilitating success by overseeing and developing your direct reports — can be learned, whether you're a first-time manager or one that's more seasoned. And while these skills do generally take time to master, you can make improvements to your people management skills starting right now.
What is people management?
People management is a broad topic that covers what it means to develop, organize, problem-solve for, and grow the employee side of the business. These skills range from being able to mediate a personality clash between team members to building an effective human resources system for a business.
You have a management team because you don't expect employees to magically come up with and enforce company structure. Similarly, the idea behind people management is that you have managers because you also can't expect employees to manage their own development, processes, and people problems all on their own.
People management skills — from running an effective 1:1 to structuring onboarding — critically enable managers to solve problems and engage employees. You can build your people management skills by making small changes in your mindset and your perspective on problems. The tips that follow will help you think about tweaks you can make in your own process to be a more effective and successful manager.
1. People management starts with listening, and listening starts before you think it does.
We think of good listening as something that happens between the beginning and end of a conversation: being attentive, making eye contact, taking notes, and waiting for the other person to finish before you start to talk. And those are all parts of the listening skill set that you should practice.
But good listening is essential to the management role, and it starts before you even sit down to talk to an employee. Keys to listening well include keeping an open mind and not jumping to conclusions before or during conversations, according to Dianne Schilling, an expert on emotional intelligence.
This means you can't assume what an employee is thinking, what their problem is, or what the solution to their problem is - you have to let go of your preconceived notions, and you need to ask them. Even if they think the cause of a problem is obvious, a great manager listens with the intent of understanding as much about the situation as possible; they don't just barge in with a possible solution. Prep for meetings, but don't go in thinking you know all the answers.
2. Learn to separate personal problems from organizational problems.
Employees are going to have problems and you are going to have to help solve them. But not all problems are created equal. The root causes of workplace problems often fall into two categories: personal and organizational. They may manifest the same way when talking to one or a few employees, but understanding the difference will save you from a disproportionate response. Treating an organizational problem like a personal one is like putting a bandaid on a broken window. Similarly, treating a personal problem like an organizational one is like remodeling your kitchen to become a better cook.
Personal problems might be:
- an employee's individual workload
- an employee's problem with their process
- an employee's dissatisfaction with their team members or performance
- an employee's unhappiness with work due to a desire to change projects
These problems, when they occur with one (or a few) employees, can be corrected with your people management skills and no significant reorganization. On the other hand, organizational problems are entrenched and can't be solved by problem-solving one employee's problem.
Organizational problems might be:
- teams unable to cope with demands of workload collectively
- workflow problems frequently resulting in errors or delays company- or team-wide
- infighting or hostility between team members because of overall poor performance
- many employees feeling disempowered to take control of their work projects and career paths
These issues stem from inherent problems in the organization of the company. Managers need to use their people management skills to comprehend the organizational problem behind the above problems, while still people-managing to keep employees' heads above water until the problem is truly fixed.
3. Understand each employee's purpose.
To communicate with employees and empathize with them, you have to understand what draws them to their role and what joy they derive from their work; i.e., their purpose. Purpose is a huge part of what keeps people satisfied at work and what drives them to succeed and push themselves professionally. Knowing why an employee feels connected to their role and why they're inspired to be an individual contributor to the business through it helps you as a manager understand how to help them succeed in a way that also benefits the company.
People want to work on projects where they believe they can do well, and when they're given the opportunity to do what they do best, they feel more connected to their work. Pinpointing exactly what an employee likes about their role — or why they may be striving for a promotion/ to take on a new role — allows you to frame solutions in a way that helps employees see how your solution will take them towards their goal, and how they have some of the tools they need to enact that solution.
For example, two engineers are both struggling with a project they work on. One isn't interested in the end result of the project, and doesn't feel motivated to complete the work. The other enjoys the project and the collaborative aspect of pair programming, but isn't getting along at all with their pair programming partner.
That first engineer might need to be taken off the project entirely, or at least be given other work to help them move in a direction that suits their interest. But to take the second off the project would be taking them away from work they like — instead, making sure they're rotated to a new partner who will boost their morale. Assuming that both engineers would need to be reassigned or both would need to be repaired would ignore the big picture: that those engineers have different purposes, and therefore different underlying problems.
4. Balance praise and criticism wisely.
Although it may seem easier to give praise than criticism, studies show that theory doesn't hold water when it comes to the workplace. One survey revealed that 44% of managers said giving negative feedback was stressful, but a shocking 40% of the same group never gave positive reinforcement.
Employees need a balance of both praise and criticism in order to thrive. If you only give praise for good work, you're a straw man that frustrates employees because you don't help them grow. But only criticism and your employees will be on-edge and demoralized.
The Harvard Business Review says a good rule of thumb is to give more praise than criticism, showing that top teams generally have a regular flow of compliments:
This doesn't mean lying to your employees about how well they're doing or forgoing constructive comments. Rather, it's about recognizing when, where and how to give praise. Efforts by employees should be rewarded regularly and in a timely fashion. Public praise, private praise and special tokens (like employee of the month awards or other recognitions) are all people management tools that build trust and morale.
Criticism, like praise, should be timely. Rather than simply pointing to errors, good managers will give feedback by helping employees find solutions to work through their weaknesses. By helping employees set new goals, you signal that you believe in their ability to improve and are willing to help them course-correct. Just don't forget to finish on a positive note!
5. Never leave a meeting without asking employees this open-ended question.
Whether it's a quarterly performance review or prep for a client meeting, you should always “end every important conversation with, "Is there anything else?”, according to David Hauser, founder of Grasshopper, in his 2017 SaaSFest talk.
Whatever is top of mind — their biggest challenges — will come out first. It can give employees an opening to ask for help rather than waiting until a big meeting where you try and go through all their highs and lows. It also keeps you in the loop on their development and their work without them feeling like you're micromanaging.
Perhaps most importantly, this tip is an easy way to build trust with your employees and be a better manager. It signals that you care and want to know about their problems, even if it's not explicitly on the agenda. People management relies on interpersonal relationships, and building those out of every meeting is a great way to connect.
6. Check in when nothing is wrong.
Picture this: you're an employee who has had pretty smooth sailing thus far. But suddenly, you end up with a big problem on your most recent project. Since you don't regularly speak to your manager, you don't really know how to approach them, or what to expect. Should you email or Slack DM? Will they yell at you? Do you need to write up a brief? You're stressed in your time of need!
Luckily, managers have the power to prevent putting their employee in such a stressful situation by checking in when nothing is wrong. Regular meetings set an expectation of communication and provide an easy space for employees to turn to when the going gets rough.
Meeting once a week is ideal, but even biweekly meetings will help. Running a 1:1 doesn't have to be complicated, either — especially when things are smooth sailing, they can be a place to check in on goals and get to know your employees. And you'll be more likely to put out fires before they threaten to engulf a project or client relationship, too.
Bottom line: don't leave things to chance
Where good managers step in as needed to keep teams running and employees motivated, great managers are proactive and attuned to the needs of their workplace. Employees are not going to magically solve all their disputes and find their perfect path to develop to reach their career goals — it's your job to get them there. Whether you're reassigning engineers or listening empathetically, you as a leader have a responsibility to be proactive about managing the people side of business.