It’s been said that people don’t quit jobs; they quit managers. Often the problem stems from a leader’s poor people skills. While many companies today are recruiting for strong soft skills, that doesn’t solve the problem of managers already in the workplace who lack these attributes.
Part of the challenge was the recent talent shortage, says Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Companies were promoting at a faster pace because they needed to fill positions and many of these people were first-time managers,” he says. “Just because someone was good in their role doesn’t mean they’d be good managing people. It requires different skills, and few were given training and guidance on how to manage others.”
Unfortunately, employees pay the price. A recent survey by SHRM found that 84% of workers blame a bad manager for creating unnecessary stress. The survey also collected feedback about a supervisor’s ability to manage people, and these are the top five skills employees wish their managers would improve:
1. Effective communication
The most requested skill on the survey is the ability to communicate effectively, with 41% of employees saying their manager could improve in this area.
“Communication is always critical,” says Lee. “What this tends to refer to is that mangers learn things from their boss or from the CEO about what’s happening in the organization and it’s incumbent on them to share the information with the people they oversee. But this doesn’t happen as well as could.”
To be good communicators, managers need to build their empathy and empathetic listening skills, says Tim Ringo, author of Solving the Productivity Puzzle. “This is especially important at the moment, as a lot of people are traumatized by the events this year,” he says. “Managers who have this skill naturally will be the superstars of the coming years, as they will look after people. Managers who don’t have these skills naturally, need to develop them, and do so quickly.”
2. Ability to develop and train the team
Employees want to be working toward the next step in their career progression, and 38% of employees wish their manager would help them in this goal.
“The boss’s job may not be available soon, but employees should be trained to move into another opportunity at company,” says Lee. “Employees are saying, ‘Develop and train me or I’ll leave.’”
Training and equipping workers with the right tools to succeed is more critical now than ever before, says Nicholas Whittall, a managing director with Accenture’s Talent & Organization/Human Potential group. “New skills tied to creativity, critical reasoning, and social and emotional intelligence rise in importance,” he says. “Leaders who can balance an understanding of emerging workforce needs with ongoing business challenges are well-positioned to chart successful change strategies.”
Communication skills can foster team development capabilities, adds Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of human resources for Engage PEO, an HR services provider.
“Through this regular feedback managers will learn about areas that their team members need support in and areas where they seek professional development,” she says. “The manager can then tailor projects and tasks to improve the employee’s capability in areas that are weak and speak to the employee’s desired areas of professional growth. This focused training and development based on need and interest helps the employee feel supported and heard by the manager.”
3. Good at managing time and delegating
When managers don’t manage their time well, they often do tasks that should be delegated. Thirty-seven percent of employees said this is a problem, and they want their managers to give them more work, says Lee.
“It might seem strange that employees are saying, ‘Give me more work,’ but what they’re really saying is, ‘My manger is keeping me out of the loop and not giving me important things to do,’” he says.
Delegating is one of the most important skills a new manager needs to learn, says Matsis-McCready. “It is easy to fall into old habits of completing a task quickly, but the manager is doing a disservice to themselves and their team if they do this,” she says. “The manager is taking time away from managing by doing projects they should be delegating and the team member misses out on valuable experience from working on the project that should have been delegated.”
4. Can cultivate an inclusive team culture
Culture tends to come from the top, and it’s up to managers to take those beliefs, put them into action, and follow through. But 35% of employees say their manager needs some work on this. “Managers need to make sure employees feel positive and included in all aspects,” says Lee.
Leading with empathy fosters an inclusive culture, which has become increasingly important, says Christine Trodella, head of Americas for Workplace from Facebook. “Managers often forget that each of their team members have different ways of working, and as such, need to be managed differently,” she says, adding that she determines how her direct reports prefer to be managed and tailor their check-ins accordingly. “It’s possible to weave empathy into everything you do as a business leader, and it shows in your teams’ output and attitude towards work.”
Empathy and compassion are now expected from leaders, adds Whittall. “In a world where individuals are feeling a greater sense of shared purpose, demonstrating empathy is no longer optional; it’s a must-have characteristic of a manager,” he says.
Creating more inclusive work cultures needs to be built on a foundation of compassion. “Culture change around inclusion and diversity is so fundamental that it’s not just doing; it’s becoming,” says Whittall. “Leaders will need to throw away the old scorecards and performance metrics, redefining the way they lead and what they hold their teams accountable for daily.”
5. Skilled at managing team performance
Finally, 35% of employees think their boss needs to work on their ability to manage team performance. “Typically, this means that they need to make sure everyone is pulling their weight,” says Lee. “What tends to upset a team is if someone is not fully engaged—not carrying their load—and others have to step in. If a manager does nothing about it and lets it go, it can be grating on the rest of the team. Every team has super stars and average performers, but when nothing is done about under performers, it brings down morale.”
Monitoring team performance naturally gets more difficult when teams are working remotely, adds Trodella. “It’s important to convey your trust to teams you manage to get them fully motivated and aligned on goals and priorities,” she says. “It’s also key to empathize with employees that may not be performing at their usual caliber given we’re battling competing crises—the pandemic, fires on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South. Some may have the additional challenge of getting kids back to school.”
Developing these five people skills in managers is everyone’s responsibility, says Lee. “HR members at an organization are typically the ones who recognize it’s needed because they hear the complaints or see the issues arise when someone doesn’t have good people skills,” he says. “Leadership of an organization needs to recognize the importance and invest in training. And the manager should recognize the need for developing their skills, too. if they want to succeed in their job—and they should—they need to take steps to become a better people manager.”