How Do You Learn to Manage People?

We’ve taken an interest in people managers since the beginning of the pandemic. Because as we supported different experiences across companies, we quickly saw the pressure point was people managers. And we wrote and coached about how to handle worry, loss, loneliness…. and inconsistencies in work. That order was the priority during the pandemic as managers were told to “look after people” first.

Then, we saw the “return to work” phase, as managers had to pivot to manage the work versus managing the people. Some stepped in and took it on themselves so they could look after people and look after work when the two were in conflict with each other.

And now with company plans firmly in place, people managers are expected to be firmer in managing people. In the last two years, people managers have come full circle with giving feedback, reviews and sometimes performance ratings that communicate less flexibility and more expectation. And through it all, new pain points for people managers have emerged.
Anecdotally, we set out to learn a few things from both perspectives: the managers themselves and the people being managed. And we came away with interesting insights.

When people managers were asked to rate themselves in terms of effectiveness, (scale of 1-5; 1=poor and 5=outstanding), the average was a 3.5. Some were threes and some were fours, but everyone we talked to considered themselves average or a little above.

But when we asked for the same rating of effectiveness from people who are managed, the swing was much greater. Some employees rated their manager a five, and some rated their manager a one. And the wide discrepancy led to another realization. The people managers who were rated the highest had been managing people for more than 10 years. And those who were rated very low started managing people during the last five years.

Our hypothesis became: your skill set at managing people has a lot to do with when you became a people manager.

People managers with a lot of experience under their belt now say the pandemic chaos was an anomaly. As their companies reset, they reset their management skills to conversation guidelines, feedback processes and team expectations that they learned to do a while ago. They have a toolkit that needs some refinement, but they find the fundamentals of managing people to be the same.

People managers who took on teams in the last five years see their role as inconsistent, and their experience has only been the frenetic shifts described above. Many say they aren’t confident being a people manager, and they don’t feel that they have much of a toolkit to guide them. They’ve been handed a new playbook every year and the guidance swings from “anything goes” to “enforce expectations” with smaller pivots in between.

If you ask the more experienced managers how they developed management skills, they all say their skills evolved over time and they learned by watching others and asking others for guidance.

That wasn’t a model that was sustainable during remote work and high-stress situations. So, it’s little wonder that newer managers feel they didn’t get the same guidance or support. And it’s why we’ve taken an interest in helping these younger managers feel more confident in the tools and their skills in managing people.

Work situations are different today, and both experienced and inexperienced managers told us that they find feedback conversations to be challenging.

Today, they’re managing a false sense of confidence from young employees, a stronger demand for personal preference and exceptions, and a concern that every conversation will be a negotiation. They brace for resistance and feel good when they can avoid conflict.

The seasoned managers have a better perspective on assessing behaviors and showing empathy without trading off work.

So while all managers feel they’re being tested by some of their employees, the more experienced managers have “seen things before” and feel more confident in their ability to work things out and get to resolution.

And interestingly, employees see the difference. When we asked those who rated a manager low what skills the manager needed, they say managers need to set clear goals and hold people accountable. They want constructive feedback, and they want to advance in their careers. But they admit they’re impatient about it and often feel the younger manager is in the way of their advancement rather than supporting their path.

The pain points were easy to identify with young managers and their teams. But as we’ve prioritized this development need, we’ve also talked to HR leaders to be sure we’re aligned on what the gap actually is.

And it has multiple components.

Guidelines for Hybrid Work – All managers need a reset on dealing with the blurred lines created by a new way of work. Every company has a return to work strategy, but in most cases, the strategy is different enough that managing people in a hybrid setting is still a development need.

Manager Network – Young managers can’t evolve over time as their predecessors did. In fact, many of their role models are no longer in the workforce to mentor them. The early retirement and remote work of seasoned managers has created a gap in companies. And managers need a structured network and sounding board to support each other.

Manager Toolkit & Tools – While they may have some tools, they want training that brings all the tools together. They don’t have time to find different pieces. They want the best practices for feedback and crucial conversations and guidance on applying them to their situations.

Brand & Confidence – Open dialogs have led to direct feedback from their teams. Sometimes charged with emotion, and sometimes just deflating. But demanding employees can erode a manager’s confidence, and they want to understand how their brand is perceived and how to hold their own in a tough conversation.

We’ve taken an interest in people managers because we know how critical they are in companies, and we hear the pain as we talk to them in workshops and coaching sessions. While it’s no one’s fault that the gap developed, it will be everyone’s problem if young managers don’t gain confidence in their ability to manage.

And that’s why we’ve developed a program that focuses on the components above. We’re talking to companies about how to leverage it and how to tailor it to the needs of their managers. And if you’re experiencing similar challenges, we’d welcome a chance to talk to you as well.


Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates