Whether you’re a brand new, first-time people manager or have been leading a team for years, how you manage your direct reports has a huge impact on their overall performance, engagement, and perception of the organization. Although multiple factors often play a role in any one particular person’s decision to leave a company, the fact remains: 50 percent of employees have left a job "to get away from their manager to improve their overall life." So how can you ensure you’re on the other half of that statistic? Being a great people manager starts with a few critical skills: listening, empathy, and empowerment.
If there is a single skill that differentiates a decent (or bad) manager from a great manager, it’s their ability to listen - really listen - to their team members. Listen when they say they feel burnt out. Listen when they tell you they’re bored and need a challenge. Listen to what they say their career goals are. Listen to them when they say they need a break or support. Listen when they show excitement for a new project, certification, or opportunity. Listen even when they don’t say anything at all - silence is often more powerful than anything they may tell you.
Sounds easy enough, right? Being a skilled listener takes time, practice, and a high level of self-awareness. Common pitfalls managers can fall into include being distracted or multitasking during a conversation, or mentally preparing your response while they’re talking. Combat these tendencies by being fully present in the discussion. Put your phone away; silence notifications on Slack and in your email; close out browser tabs. An incredible 93% of communication is either nonverbal or based in the tone - not the actual words - that are being spoken. To gather all the clues and nonverbal signals your employee is trying to share with you, you have to be 100% focused on the conversation you’re having.
Similarly, stop trying to plan your response or retort to what they are saying. This is a learned skill and will take time to develop. It’s hard when you may only have a fixed amount of time to talk or are working remotely and don’t have easy access to your team members without advanced planning. However - part of what makes a dynamic manager is spending more time listening and taking in what your employee needs/wants than you spend talking. Give your employee the floor during 1:1s - let them set the agenda and decide what they want to discuss. Reflect after each conversation - what would you estimate the percentage of you being silent and listening versus talking and owning the conversation was? Try to work towards 80/20.
Empathy - the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s situation and to be able to understand how they would feel in that situation - is a skill all great managers share. It involves being able to listen to your team members (back to our first skill), but also to share and be vulnerable yourself. Get to know your team as people - what motivates them to succeed, how they feel recognized, where they see themselves growing, and how can you help them get there. Take an active role in coaching your team, offering help and guidance in developing skills they want to learn, providing them opportunities to try new things, and giving support when you’re aware of a personal loss or struggle. Show sincere interest in who they are and their aspirations - and help in any way you can to get them there.
Be aware of signs of burnout. And remember - perception is reality. You may not think from your perspective an employee should feel burnt out; but how you think another person should feel is irrelevant - the fact is, they do feel that way and telling them they shouldn’t only invalidates their experience and leads to a lack of trust. Open up a conversation with them to understand the feeling of overwhelm they’re experiencing - what else is going on? What can you do to help support them or ease the load? What solutions can you offer?
Practicing empathy can be a win-win for not only your team members, but also for yourself. According to Forbes, managers who practice compassionate leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers by their own bosses.
What does empowerment at work look and feel like? It means people feel trusted - like their manager and colleagues know they know what they’re doing. It means they are able to offer opinions, share ideas, and voice concerns without fear of retribution or humiliation. It looks like being able to admit to a mistake or talk about how something went awry with honesty. It looks like the ability to adapt, be flexible, and be open to trying new things.
To empower your team, start by reflecting on why each person is there to begin with. It should be because you trust them to do their job. You know they’re qualified and capable. Trust is imperative when it comes to empowerment - you must be able to trust your team, their expertise, and their decision-making skills in order to empower them.
Piggybacking off of trust is being open to new ideas. As a people manager, you should be actively encouraging your team to come to each conversation with their ideas: what’s blocking a project from progressing and what solutions do they have to remove the block? What new product could we launch next quarter and what are the first steps in building out that offering? Listen (again - back to that first skill!) to your team members’ ideas - and don’t just pretend to listen or care. If you say you encourage ideas and different perspectives but consistently do what you want anyway, your team will continue to feel disempowered.
Recognize and appreciate your employees - in ways that matter to them. This requires getting to know your team members. For example, which ones feel validated with words of affirmation, or which ones prefer 1:1 time with you as a way to show recognition? Some people love public praise - others are embarrassed by being put on the spot. Regardless, getting to know your team and providing feedback and recognition empowers them to keep doing their best. Similarly, empowering a team means having a culture that encourages giving and receiving good and constructive feedback. Find ways to ask your team members to provide their perspective on how you’re doing as their manager - what are some areas they feel you can develop? How may you better support their career growth? If you only support giving out feedback and opportunities but don’t take feedback yourself, your team will not feel empowered to be honest and transparent.
Simon Sinek said it best: "When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen."
At the end of the day, being a great manager is about putting your people first - listening to them, empathizing with them, and empowering them to show up as their full, authentic selves so that together, you can do great things.