Managers play a crucial role in motivating employees, monitoring their wellbeing, and steering teams through the current upheavals to working life. But 90% report they need more support and coaching from HR teams to do the job properly.

Empowering managers with the tools to develop themselves as leaders and better support their teams is critical for organisational success. In this short read in partnership with Culture Amp, we look at how to empower your managers with the human skills they need to lead and coach teams.

1. Be more human, not less 

It has never been more important for managers to show their humanity in the workplace, from informal daily feedback to performance reviews. When leaders share their own vulnerability, it gives the entire team permission to be honest about how they feel.

Creating a safe place for employees to talk through personal challenges, where one can’t be overheard, is crucial. Empathising with the team’s struggles and showing support helps build trust between managers and their direct reports, but difficult conversations mustn’t be shied away from when needed.

2. Improve managers’ coaching skills 

The best managers are great performance coaches – but they sometimes need help with this. Research by Gartner found employees that report to managers who coach effectively are 40% more engaged and exhibit 38% more discretionary effort than those who report to ineffective coaches. 

But there are different ways to coach. Gartner also found that Always-On managers – giving diligent, constant feedback – are sought after by organisations but can be found overwhelming by employees, reducing performance by up to 8%.

Connector managers, on the other hand, don’t presume to coach their direct reports on everything. Connectors guide them to people and resources beyond their immediate sphere and help them acquire experience and skills, improving employee performance by up to 26%.

To be better guides, when a problem arises, managers need to avoid ‘solution mode’, where they tell the team what to do. Keeping it discursive allows team members to arrive at their own solutions, and feel more involved in outcomes.

Open-ended questions (such as ‘What have you already tried?’ or ‘What are your options?’) create space for input.

Finally, managers must adopt a growth mindset. Challenges are opportunities for employees to learn, and the right questions are a powerful way to drive behaviours. For example: ‘What could you learn from this situation?’

3. Make one-to-ones more meaningful

Creating a culture of regular, ongoing feedback improves employee morale, loyalty and innovation. However, an Interact survey found that 67% of managers are often uncomfortable communicating with employees, and 37% are uncomfortable giving direct feedback about performance if they think the employee might respond negatively. And 16% are even uncomfortable speaking face to face rather than by email! Some managers clearly need more training in making one-to-ones work. 

Managers should be encouraged to set up one-to-ones positively by inviting direct reports to co-create the agenda. A tone of openness can be set by being punctual, warm and present. Distractions should be removed, the meeting space should be private and the direct report should feel like a priority.

During the meeting, managers can ask how employees are doing, confirm the agenda and follow up on any previous actions. Key recent successes should be acknowledged; then, they can check-in on wellbeing, learning, working relationships, productivity and impact.

The manager should ask open-ended questions and take shareable notes of key points to refer back to. They can also get feedback on their role by asking, ‘What could I do more or less of?’ and wrap up the meeting with agreed next steps.

4. Embed personal development in everyday life

Instead of infrequent, intensive training that’s quickly forgotten, employee growth and skill development needs to become part of everyday life.

Spaced repetition – the act of distributing learning over time – has been shown to soften the ‘forgetting’ curve. Exposing employees to information multiple times over several weeks or months and asking them to actively recall it (in a quiz or activity, for example) rather than passively reread it, helps them retain more knowledge. As Harvard Magazine reports, multiple studies show that spaced learning can improve learning outcomes by as much as 50%.

Microlearning – short modules of training that can be quickly absorbed – is an ideal vehicle for delivering spaced repetition learning. Embed microlearning into your training programme and transition away from didactic teaching methods; instead, show videos and infographics, create gamified exercises or hold quizzes. Real-world simulations and role-playing exercises are especially helpful for sales, customer service or compliance training. 

Tech solutions like Culture Amp’s conversational micro-learning tool Skills Coach can deliver bite-sized activities directly to managers. Based on behavioural science insights and the principles of spaced repetition, its exercises can be applied immediately.

For more insights on the power of humanity at work, check out Culture Amp’s resources and toolkits.

This article was first published in People Management on 2 June 2021.

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