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What comes to mind when you hear the term “people management”? 

Most senior managers I talk to visibly crumble at the mere mention of people management. “Inescapable,” said one. “Headache,” said another. One seasoned manager looked me straight in the eyes and told me “I just don’t bother”. 

It’s no surprise, then, that employers around the world are facing an employee engagement and wellbeing crisis of epidemic proportions. 

Traditional ways of managing people are fundamentally unfit for purpose and need to change. Through widespread cultural change, supported by the right tools, I believe that each and every one of us can become not just great managers—we can shape exceptional people managers. 

Whether you are a business owner, HR professional or line manager, this article will help you and your organization commit to the highest standards of people management so that you are prepared for all of the HR challenges on the future work horizon.

What are the basics of people management?

When we talk about people management, we are referring to general human resource management and the way in which we optimise labour arrangements, and the management of individual workers, to maximise a range of factors such as productivity, efficiency, wellbeing and engagement.

At its core, people management can be seen as the very human relationship between workplaces and the team members, and the day-to-day decision making that goes into optimising this relationship for wider economic or organisational goals.

There are a surprisingly diverse number of areas of the employment life cycle that involve people management. For example:

  • Recruitment and onboarding
  • Training and career development
  • Holding appraisal meetings and setting targets
  • Nurturing, supervising and shaping early talent
  • Managing whereabouts, timekeeping and day to day workloads
  • Ensuring team members meet customer deadlines and demands
  • Minimising the risks of the relationship “going south” e.g. resolving disputes, grievances and conflict
  • Managing or contributing to HR processes such as discipline and performance management procedures
  • Deciding whether to increase salaries, award bonuses, enhance benefits and offer promotions
  • Holding routine catch-ups or more difficult “end of the road” conversations

As you can see, the sheer volume of people management tasks and decision making is somewhat dizzying—and that’s on top of a manager’s day-to-day duties!

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What Does Exceptional People Management Look Like?


An experienced manager could implement all of the above people management tasks with ease. They will be well versed in onboarding processes, know how to hold a meaningful performance review meeting, and understand the complexities of salary benchmarking.

But exceptional managers don’t just manage; they lead. They step up to the leadership challenge and leverage human skills based around emotional intelligence and empathy. Exceptional people managers will:

  • Communicate with authenticity and empathy
  • Listen with sincerity and sensitivity
  • Commit to inclusivity and promote a “broad church”
  • Lead with purpose and a common vision
  • Treat people with dignity and compassion
  • Educate where knowledge is lacking
  • Humanise their workplaces 

Related Read: People Management Tips For New And Experienced Managers

Why Do Businesses Need “Exceptional” Managers? 

Several macro trends have made the traditionally difficult practice of HR management extremely challenging in recent years:

  • The rapid adoption of new technologies
  • Long-term disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Increased distribution and diversification of labour arrangements.

Managers, who struggled with visibility over the day-to-day workloads, engagement and wellbeing levels of their team members before the Covid-19 pandemic, have found themselves operating in a black box during the pandemic. 

Many workforces are now dispersed and expected to move towards hybrid working arrangements. Add to that the diversity of labour categories such as contractors, freelancers, agency workers, part-time and full-time, and we start to wonder how any business can possibly stay on top of such diverse working arrangements.

If those challenges were not enough, we then look at the creaking infrastructure of workplace engagement and wellbeing. Physical health is presenting enormous challenges for businesses and HR teams around the world and will almost certainly continue to do so for many years.  

Sadly, the pandemic is far from over and we are yet to see how employers will manage chronic health conditions—such as long Covid—that will affect millions worldwide until new treatments can be found. 

In terms of mental wellbeing, the pandemic has also shed light on a burgeoning mental health crisis in recent years.


This raises all sorts of questions about how employers welcome Gen-Z into the workforce after the economic and social devastation of the pandemic (and, importantly, how to retain them).

All this raises a fundamental question—how can employers encourage line managers to genuinely care about people management and actually become excellent people managers in spite of all of the current and future disruption to ways of working? 

The solution is to develop people management exceptional who can inspire employees through continued disruption and uncertainty. 

So, how do we do that?

Beyond Box-Ticking: Training And Education 

Given the seismic cultural changes taking place, managers must start to see people management as something much bigger than just HR box-ticking.  

There is a real responsibility that will be expected from managers going forward. In particular, employee wellbeing and engagement are no longer just HR buzzwords—they are fast becoming critical compliance challenges for employers.  

Employers now need real solutions and a real commitment to excellent standards of people management for an ever-changing employee landscape. Gone are the days where an antiquated employee survey or questionnaire is enough to keep on top of employee sentiment.

Solution: train your managers on the bigger picture behind people management and see them develop into exceptional leaders. 

Educate them on why people management matters more than ever, the risks that can arise when things go wrong, and the enormous benefits that can be generated when we get people management right.  

Related Read: How To Nurture Effective Peer To Peer Learning In Your Organization

Identify Strengths And Weaknesses 


It is important to audit your management chain of command, at regular intervals, to identify any shortfalls in management standards. Essentially, you need to know where improvements can be made in order to maximise your people management model. For example:

  • Can improvements be made in the onboarding process?
  • Are there managers who need to check in with their team members more frequently?
  • Can improvements be made in the onboarding process? 
  • Are there managers who need to check in with their team members more frequently?
  • Can improvements be made in the onboarding process?
  • Are there managers who need to check in with their team members more frequently?

Additionally, consider whether you already have any excellent examples of people managers within your organisation.

Can they impart any of their wisdom more widely to other managers within the organisation? 

Could you publicise their journey to becoming great managers through internal training and networking sessions—or an interview for an in-house magazine or intranet page?  

Related Read: Thinking About An Employee Intranet? Read This First

From Reactive To Proactive Management

Growing a network of exceptional people managers may require a shift in your workplace culture. 

Traditionally, people management has been a highly reactive business. But in order to safeguard employee engagement and wellbeing, and to minimise staff turnover, you may need to move towards a much more proactive model of people management.

With proactive people management, managers continuously engage with their team members. They listen and they communicate openly and authentically. They get the best out of their team members and grow them organically. Crucially, they get that people management is vital for the overall growth and development of both themselves and their team members. 

So what does proactive people management look like?  

I would say that proactive people managers are in a way good futurologists. They can forecast future action points, risks and trends. For example, they will know that an employee who has been in the same role for several years is likely to be stagnating and may be in need of a new challenge. They will engage with this individual in frequent catch-ups and propose new or broadened roles or exciting projects or secondments.  

A true exceptional people manager will also be able to identify pain and pressure points well before they become a serious problem. For example, an employee who is working excessively long hours, without vacation time, is more likely to suffer from stress and burnout and ultimately become a potential flight risk. 

Related Read: Impostor Syndrome: What It Is And How To Deal With It

Consider Incentives And Rewards 


Given the central importance of people management to the long success of any business, you may want to consider incorporating people management standards into reward and incentive schemes.

Typically such schemes focus on personal and corporate financial KPIs. But I have seen an increasing number of schemes incorporate ethical and behavioural standards as preconditions to payment or even as reasons to clawback incentive awards. Firms have moved away from rewarding financial failure following the global economic crash of 2008, and the same principle could be said for people management.  

Arguably only high and ethical standards of people management should be rewarded behaviours, and incorporating such standards into your reward structures could transform your manager’s styles from reactive and passive to proactive and purposeful.

In essence, you can grow better people managers through the right incentives and rewards. 

Technology Can Help 

However successful you might be in developing the right cultural change to develop exceptional people managers, there are limits to what the managers can do day-to-day. This is where technology can help.

Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS for short) can help you streamline processes and keep on top of key people-related data and metrics. Many can help you identify pain and pressure points so that you can intervene before they become a problem. 

There is an abundance of HR management systems on the market that focus on different niches. Some focus solely on automation and administration, whilst others try to resolve more “human” HR matters such as workplace culture and collaboration.  

I believe there is likely to be an increased interest in safeguarding employee wellbeing and engagement over the next ten years as key priority items for firms. So be sure to pick an HRIS provider that will help you navigate these issues as potential compliance matters in the future and not just as HR buzzwords. 

Some further resources:

By Jonathan Ajay

Jonathan Ajay is the Founder of RockOtter, a human-centric people management platform and HR news and views site. Before founding RockOtter, Jonathan practised as international employment and labour lawyer where he worked closely with the international HR community. It was in this capacity that he developed a keen interest in the future of work and saw the opportunity to optimise people management through technology. He is passionate about promoting ethical people management and inclusivity within physical and remote workspaces. Outside of RockOtter, Jonathan enjoys writing, learning new skills, and biking in the great outdoors.