Some people are born to be managers; others have management thrust upon them. No matter your path to scheduling weekly one-on-ones, one of the first steps is deciding what kind of manager you want to be in your new role.
“As a new manager you're trying not to be a people pleaser. You're also trying to not be uncompromising,” said Priyanka Tilve, Lead Producer at City Cast DC. “I’m trying to make sure that all of my direct reports are happy, but also that everyone that I report to is happy. Sometimes it feels like my own needs get pushed aside because I'm focusing on all of those others.”
Striking that balance can be challenging, unintuitive, and confounding. Though managerial skills do generally take time to master, they also don’t magically develop on their own — even great managers need support and structure to be successful.
What is people management?
People management is the process of developing, organizing, problem-solving, and growing the employee side of the business. Management roles not only include supporting an entire team’s work, but also their well-being, engagement, and growth.
“It's not just coming up with tasks and delegating them,” said Tilve, “but also consistently checking back in and making sure everyone is feeling heard, understood, cared for, and being given the resources they need to succeed — while also trying to make sure they're succeeding according to company metrics.”
That’s a pretty tall order, especially for people who have more than one direct report. Conducting weekly one-on-ones, leading team meetings, and reviewing weekly updates for each team member adds up quickly. And, when you’re also a contributor to your team, it can be extra challenging to balance your own needs (like focus time, organization, and professional growth) with that of your team.
Below are seven tips for first-time managers on finding support, developing healthy mindsets, and leading with empathy.
1. Take time to learn what makes your employees unique.
Everyone brings unique traits to the team: how they best receive criticism, whether they’re a morning person, how productive they can be while multitasking. Take the time to learn about them individually — it can help you humanize them and better understand their working style.
“I share a getting-to-know-you worksheet where we learn about each other's communication style and what motivates and inspires us,” said Kelly Moon, head of content at SendBird. “I tailor my management style to each individual because everyone is different.”
Learning about your employee’s needs can give you context about their behaviors, tendencies, and roadblocks in the workplace. This nuance can help you more effectively communicate performance expectations and solve conflicts, even when working with remote teams.
“Be really communicative right out of the gate so that people don't feel confused about what to expect,” said Moon, who also encouraged facilitating ways for team members to get to know each other better, too. "Create opportunities for the team to spend time together and cultivate trust with each other; building a strong team bond helps everyone feel connected to the mission and remain resilient in the face of change or uncertainty."
2. Use 1:1s for strategic problem-solving and growth.
It can be tempting to use your one-on-one agenda as a checklist for current projects, but face-to-face time can be better used for high-level conversations.
“One-on-ones give us the space to talk about the big picture — like our production process — how is it working or not working, how should we maybe revamp it?” Tilve said. “If we weren't doing the small things on a day-to-day basis, then the weekly one-on-one would get bogged down in that stuff.”
As long as you have other methods for communicating project statuses (such as Lattice Weekly Updates and Slack, or project management tools like Jira, Asana, or Trello), spend your synchronous time more wisely — especially if you have more than one direct report.
“In those one-on-ones we identify problems that people are feeling (especially around impending burnout) and then find ways to either mitigate that or prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place,” Tilve added. “Seeing those solutions come to fruition has been really rewarding.”
Make sure to spend time reflecting together on larger patterns that come up in your workflow, as well as team member’s professional goals. “What were the successes, what worked or what didn't work, how can I support them?” Moon said. “Then they have a safe space where they're able to open up honestly, and we can troubleshoot together.”
Our one-on-one meeting agenda template can help you structure your weekly conversations.
3. Make continuous feedback the norm.
While feedback is a gift, it’s not all on the giver. It’s a manager’s job to create a safe and consistent environment for employees to feel comfortable and empowered to share feedback.
"It's very difficult to give candid, direct feedback, and the more space I can give for that [the better],” said Trevor Sutley, director of enterprise sales at Jebbit. “The more you can get that kind of open feedback system, the more comfortable they feel.”
He deliberately asks for feedback in every weekly one-on-one meeting — an idea he attributes to his girlfriend, who was a sales recruiter for six years. “They're just meant to be open conversations, back and forth,” he said. “If they don't fill it out in the Lattice Update, I always ask them verbally."
Don’t be afraid of candid feedback; open communication is much more conducive to a healthy work environment than bottling things up (and it can help your team build feedback skills with each other, too). Moon said the key to getting useful, tangible feedback from a new team is to ask good questions.
"Asking, ‘Do you think I'm a good manager?’ is not a great question that will solicit a meaningful response because it's too open-ended,” Moon said. “Instead, ask for feedback on more specific aspects of your leadership style, such as the way you communicate to others or share updates, how you facilitate conversations or meetings, if you're providing opportunities for individuals to feel challenged and excited."
4. Deliver criticism with care and empathy.
Sharing critical feedback can be nerve-wracking, but waiting until a formal performance review can leave employees feeling blindsided. One survey revealed that 44% of managers said giving negative feedback was stressful, but 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, employees may not take your feedback seriously. But if you only share criticism, your employees will be on-edge and demoralized.
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.
"Give people the chance to address it as quickly as possible,” said Sutley. “You might be nervous to say it, but if you just do it and have that good conversation with them one-on-one, it means a world of difference."
If you are feeling nervous, Moon, Sutley, and Tilve offered recommendations for preparing yourself for difficult conversations:
- View employees as partners in problem-solving. “I'm trying to see it as a problem that affects both of us, and we will work together to try and find a solution to it as opposed to thinking that as manager, I have seen this problem and it is my job to tell you how to correct it,” Tilve said.
- Remind yourself why the conversation matters. "If I'm going into a difficult conversation and I'm feeling anxious about it, I make sure to remind myself that having that conversation is important, valuable, and necessary for the success of the individual,” Moon said.
- Prioritize respect and empathy. "We need to give this feedback, but emotionally how can I deliver it in the most well-received, well-respected way?” said Sutley. “The best managers are able to hold their team accountable, but they do it in a way where it's empathetic and they actually are there to support and offer ideas."
- Accept that the learning curve may require repetition. Tilve said repetitive conversations can ease pressures on both sides. “It's not a specific behavior I'm trying to change, so much as a mindset,” she said. “We just keep having conversations around how we navigate our differences, what are better ways for us to communicate our disagreements, and how to move forward from those disagreements.”
Be sure to give team members a chance to share why they might be underperforming, such as issues with working relationships, mental health needs, process pitfalls, or workload issues. Active listening can help you build trust each time you check in, and help employees understand that your feedback is meant to support them.
5. Be transparent about goal-setting.
Setting goals is key to keeping individual contributors focused and aligned. But if you’re responsible for setting your team’s goals (as opposed to just implementing them), you might be stuck accounting for your team’s capacity and the company’s needs at the same time.
“The most stressful part is making sure we're not coming up with goals that are too easy, and that will make us kind of complacent or bored, but also not so overly ambitious that we could never reach them,” Tilve said. “It was a fear of setting ourselves up for failure.”
While every manager might not be in charge of the goals their team must accomplish, they play a key role in helping employees connect their contributions to the big picture, as well as tracking measurable progress. That means educating employees on how their daily work supports team goals, and why those goals were selected in the first place. Sutley had three recommendations for new leaders on setting goals:
- Encourage employees to participate. “I lean towards oversharing with my team and making it very clear on why we have the expectations set to what they are. I want them to challenge me on different things because I think it helps me think differently or think about areas that I might not be thinking about."
- Put yourself in their shoes. "I think it's fair to ask, ‘Hey, how, how did we come to these goals?’ The more transparent you can be and the more trust you can build with them, the more they know that you're advocating for them behind the scenes."
- Help them connect to the big picture. “Whatever you can do to make them feel more connected in a genuine, authentic way, adds a lot of value to their day-to-day. You can only motivate people with fear for so long."
If goal-setting is one of your new responsibilities, download our workbook, How to Set Meaningful and Effective OKRs.
6. Try not to take team performance personally.
“Management involves a tremendous amount of emotional regulation," Moon said. Taking matters personally may come naturally when feeling so responsible for others, but ultimately is unhealthy in the long term — especially during times of economic crisis.
“I'm so attached to goals and to my team that when we don't perform, I kind of take it personally. And you just can't do that, otherwise you're not gonna survive,” Sutley said. “You've gotta put your ego, your needs, and your feelings aside to say, ‘Hey, it's not about me.’"
Being low-ego is a key to leading high-performing teams — in fact, it’s a crucial part of the servant leadership model that Moon ascribes to. She said this mentality helps keep her open-minded to learning and adapting her management style.
"Sometimes folks in leadership positions not only put a lot of pressure on themselves, but they feel a need to exert and display immense power,” she said. “But I really wanted to approach it differently and challenge that way of thinking — I'm really here to serve the people I'm supposed to support."
7. Be open to learning from others.
Take advantage of management training and courses offered by your organization. Chances are, their curriculum includes the fundamentals for your specific work environment, including company expectations, leadership skills, resources for conflict-management, and mentorship opportunities within the organization.
But newer and smaller organizations might not have this infrastructure yet, and it’s okay to explore other kinds of support to build new skills. Tilve said she leans on peer managers for insights and ideas.
“We get together once a month without any of our direct reports and without any of our managers to be able to talk,” she said. “It is really cathartic, and supportive, and so needed. If we could find the time to do that more often, that would probably help alleviate a lot of stress for all of us.”
Don’t discount the perspective of people who work outside your company, too, whether they’re former colleagues, mentors, or external leadership courses.
“Seeing what other companies are doing that we haven't thought of can be really useful,” Tilve said. “Because it's a little bit of an echo chamber sometimes.” She also recommended reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. Sutley recommended Patrick Lencioni’s Five Functions of a Team, and Moon said she learned a lot from the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model.
Moon encouraged new managers to think about what kind of leaders they learned from early in their careers, both as managerial inspirations and caveats. In other words, consider what kind of manager you don’t want to be.
"Be open-minded when you're first starting out, because over time your philosophy or leadership style will evolve. Leave room for that evolution,” she said. “Challenge what you think is the best practice, even if it might be. You'll never be a perfect leader, but you can strive to be a more effective leader than you were the day before."
Want to learn more about delivering feedback in a leadership role? Download our workbook, Preparing for Performance Reviews as a First-Time Manager.