People management is a critical skill for any manager. Whether you are new to the role or have been managing people for years, mastering this skill will positively impact employee engagement and productivity.
A bad manager can ruin a good job, but a good manager can make a bad job tolerable!
When I think about my own career, there are a few key people managers that stand out as excellent and a few that I’d run away from if I met them in an interview for a new role.
Those that stand out are the ones who my colleagues and I felt genuinely cared about what we wanted and for our organization to be successful.
These are the managers that never told me I couldn’t do something. Instead, they encouraged me to try and then learn from the experience.
Now, after 15-years of management experience across industries, contexts, and job functions, I pass on these good experiences to aspiring and experienced leaders through graduate-level courses at the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business.
Here, we will cover the basics of people management, a few different people management styles, and what to do to get well on the way towards being an effective people manager.
People management is the process of ensuring that the right people are in the right place, with the right resources, to achieve the desired goals. This includes recruiting, training, and developing your team members.
Management makes a huge difference in the experience of every employee across the employee lifecycle. Management behaviors and styles have a significant impact on employee performance and retention, especially when navigating change.
There is a lot of overlap between people management and leadership, and good leaders are also good managers. However, there are some key differences. Leaders often have more of a strategic role, while managers are more focused on day-to-day operations.
The qualities of a good people manager can be somewhat elusive. We all want to be led by someone who is competent, confident, and decisive.
But how do you get to that person? And what does it take to stay in that position? What if you're just starting out and don't have much experience managing people?
My students are often aspiring people managers or have just started having people report to them. In most cases, these people have a deep care for their employees and are hungry to learn how to serve them best.
The authenticity in their care is what matters most in their early days and, from there, we add skills and awareness to create really strong, supportive, and empathetic people managers.
There are a few notable styles to consider when evaluating your own people management techniques and striving to manage people in a way that promotes performance, employee retention, and a positive employee experience.
People management styles can be broken down into four categories: directive, coaching, supportive and delegative.
Directive people management
The manager tells employees what to do and how to do it. This style is most effective when tasks need to be completed quickly and efficiently to a specific standard or requirement, but it can also lead to a lot of stress for employees.
It also works best for employees early in their development or in cultures or contexts where employees need to be told exactly what to do, how, and when.
Fun fact: micromanaging does not show an employee you care about their work.
Micromanaging demonstrates that you do not trust an employee to produce quality work independently.
There is a huge difference between working together in collaboration with an employee to problem-solve and micromanaging an employee in their own problem-solving.
If you find yourself micromanaging or contradicting work or decisions made because they aren’t what you would have done, reflect to identify your true fears and determine the best path to build opportunities for your employees to demonstrate competence, build confidence, and allow you to trust them more.
Trust from a manager is truly empowering for an employee. Also, when you’re doing your employees’ jobs, you aren’t doing your own!
Coaching people management
The manager provides clear, specific direction and supports employees in achieving the desired outcomes. This style is effective to help people learn specific behaviors and cultural norms such that, in the future, the manager might be able to be more supportive and less directive.
The coaching style is helpful in developing specific behaviors in highly competent employees adjusting to a new organizational culture or context.
Supportive people management
The manager provides guidance and support to employees but allows them to make their own decisions, including guiding outcomes.
This style is often more positive for employees and can lead to better results where there might be many "right answers" and employees are experienced and competent in creating a positive outcome in the specific context or organization.
Delegative people management
The manager gives employees autonomy to make their own decisions with little support or involvement.
The delegative style can be helpful in developing employee skills and is typically best for highly developed employees who deeply understand the context, culture, and goals of the organization.
No one-style-fits-all approach
Even within a team, employees of various development levels may be managed or led best using different styles. The best people managers are skilled in identifying which styles are the best fit for individuals and teams.
For example, in my experience managing project managers, I find that new employees need more direction at the outset as they learn the context, culture, and norms of our company.
During this stage of their development, I often have the new employees join me in collaborating to solve a problem or deliver an outcome.
By "riding along" with me, new project managers get to watch me work and, in that process, learn the norms and expectations of the company and gain a deeper understanding of their role and what is expected of them.
After they have worked with me for a while, I start assigning them projects to own where I can then move into a coaching style. As they grow in their experience and competence, my approach becomes more supportive and, later, delegating.
As you move forward, when determining what type of people management style is best for each of your employees, consider their experience and development or maturity in their role and solicit feedback about your management.
This will help you know if they need more support or direction from you to do their best work. As with all people management elements, communication and feedback are key to your success.
People management requires a combination of skills and abilities that focus on supporting employees and managing performance, outcomes, and resource allocation.
A few key skills that come to mind specifically include:
- Sourcing, interviewing, and onboarding employees
- Building trust and maintaining trusting relationships
- Active listening and communicating clearly
- Giving specific, timely feedback
- Identifying people’s strengths and core competencies
- Distributing and delegating work
- Setting clear expectations
- Motivating employees
- Collaborating in problem-solving
- Encouraging development and learning from failure
- Celebrating successes.
1. Hire the right people
Hiring the right people is key to any organization's success. Hiring someone with the wrong skill set or values can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort that could have been avoided by just getting it right the first time around.
But how do you know if someone has what it takes?
The best way to hire the right person is through an interview process that includes both non-technical questions about their experience, values, and goals as well as technical questions related to your industry or company. This will give you an idea of whether this person would be a good fit for your team.
While there is no magic formula for hiring the right people, I have found success by identifying the behaviors that are required of the role, interviewing for those behaviors, and including team members in the interview process that will work closely with the new employee—even if they are not directly on my team.
Here's a tip to remember: Hire slow, fire fast. If you hire the wrong person, work to remove them swiftly so you can move on and find the right person to best support your team and organization's goals.
For more literature on hiring and interviewing, check out Mariya Hristova's excellent articles The Key To Focused, Engaging Interviews and How To Create An Efficient, Sustainable Growth Hiring Plan.
2. Set clear expectations
Setting clear expectations for employees is one of the most important things a manager can do for their team members.
By setting clear expectations, you’re telling your employees what you expect of them and what they can expect from you.
How can you set clear expectations for your employees?
The best way to do this is by providing them with a job description or role clarification document which outlines the specific tasks and duties of the role, as well as the goals and objectives of the position. This document should be updated regularly as the employee's responsibilities change.
Another way to set clear expectations is by having regular check-ins with your employees to discuss their performance both at a tactical and strategic or development level.
I know weekly 1:1s can be a bit time consuming so, if not possible, bi-monthly performance check-ins (not formal performance reviews, but at least a touchpoint on performance) is a good guideline.
In addition, of course, negative feedback about performance should never be saved or made a surprise.
When you set clear expectations for performance, it’s your job as a manager to uphold those expectations and let people know when they fall short.
Every person should be given some grace when they;re learning a new role, but it doesn’t help your new employee’s learning when you don’t tell them how they’re doing or, more importantly, what they could add/change/remove to be an even better contributor to the team.
Giving constructive feedback is a bit of an art but, with practice and empathy, I know you can master this skill and help your employees perform their best.
I remember when I started out as a manager and I thought that my job was to “lay down the law” and “tell people what to do.”
I was so incredibly wrong!
Through leadership and coaching training, as well as having many amazing leaders to experience and study I learned that, actually, your job as a leader is to help people see the value and impact of their actions and guide them towards achieving both the collective goals of the team or organization and their personal goals.
If you can pivot from “you work for me” to “we work together, and my job is to help you be successful,” you too will navigate the transition to being a much better, empathetic leader.
3. Give feedback regularly
Giving feedback regularly is key to maintaining open communication and minimizing misalignment and surprises.
By giving feedback, you're telling your team members what they're doing well and where they need to improve. This helps to ensure that your employees are constantly growing and developing their skillset.
When giving feedback, I practice Radical Candor. Praise your employees publicly and challenge them privately. Use your emotional intelligence skills to guide how you give feedback, and also be open to accepting feedback about the way you give feedback!
If you give negative or critical feedback to a team member in a meeting or stakeholder session, this not only makes your employee look bad and feel embarrassed, it also makes you look like a manager who doesn't know how to give feedback appropriately or, even worse, may not be paying close enough attention to know when feedback is needed.
How can you ensure that you give feedback regularly? Well, as mentioned, the best way to do this is by setting up regular check-ins with your employees, either in person or over video chat.
During these check-ins, be sure to discuss the employee's progress on their projects as well as their development goals. This is a great time to give feedback on both areas and ask questions about what each employee needs to move forward in their work and their career as a whole.
Most importantly, do not save up negative feedback for an employee's official performance review or your company's performance management process.
Giving regular feedback reduces the stress and fear often associated with official performance management conversations because it means these conversations never include any major surprises.
For more on feedback, check out Alana Fallis's 5 Ways To Give More Effective Feedback
4. Provide training and development opportunities
You want to feel like you’re continually learning and growing professionally, right?
This is why it’s so important for managers to provide development and training opportunities for their employees in alignment with individual employee career goals. By providing these opportunities, you’re telling your employees that you value their growth and that you are invested in their future.
Have someone that wants to go to management training and aspires to be a people leader?
In order for you to grow and move on you will need more leaders to guide your teams, so always encourage those that want to learn to manage others and build their leadership skills.
The best way you can provide development and training opportunities for your team members is by offering a variety of learning options, such as online courses, books, podcasts, or in-person workshops that align with their interests and career aspirations.
You can also offer shadowing or job rotation opportunities so your employees can learn about other areas of the business.
I have personally benefitted from a few somewhat unplanned job rotations, including where I got plucked from my “regular” job as a project manager to go manage a site reliability engineering team which was the always on-call, emergency response team supporting a huge on-premise software platform.
I am not a software development guru, or even an engineering manager, but I learned through this experience that it doesn’t matter a ton if you’re managing engineers, support agents, project managers, or marketers; what people need from a manager is an empathetic person who is committed to supporting each individual in their own way and getting what the team needs in order to do good work.
5. Address poor performance promptly
When it comes to addressing poor employee performance, timing is everything. Do not hesitate or delay talking with employees about their poor performance.
By the time you as the manager have found out about it, others are certainly impacted and, in the worst cases, individual employee well-being is threatened.
If performance issues are not addressed promptly they can become worse, and a poor-performing employee may turn toxic and infect your team and the wider organization.
Some common signs of poor employee performance include employees not meeting deadlines or producing low-quality work, exhibiting disruptive or hostile behavior, or showing a lack of engagement or motivation.
In some cases, high-performing employees that work with low-performing employees will notice performance issues and may complain to others. This feedback is an important leading indicator of poor performance, but should not be taken as fact.
If you receive information that indicates one of your team members is not performing to expectations, ask the employee highlighting the issue if they have addressed the issue directly with the employee and encourage them to address the issue head-on.
Next, talk with the potentially low-performing employee and seek their perspective on how things are going and what challenges the team is facing in achieving their goals. In some cases, self-awareness may be the issue and it’s your duty as the people manager to step in and share how the employee's actions may be perceived and is impacting others.
What can you do when feedback and addressing the issue promptly isn't working?
When you confirm that an employee is not meeting performance standards, start documenting the issues promptly and include details, timestamps, and impacts.
Capturing detail about the situations, your interventions, feedback provided, reactions, and agreed next steps will be very helpful if issues persist or progress and you need to look at terminating the employee in collaboration with your company’s HR professionals.
The first thing your HR team will ask you for is documentation about the issues and what you have done to guide the employee to correct the behavior.
Your ability to terminate an employee when you want to can be stopped by insufficient documentation.
6. Encourage creativity and innovation; embrace failure
"You have to trust the passion and the drive and the creativity of an individual who really wants to run with an idea. Trust is what we need to be successful in our jobs and the relationship we need to have with our managers." - John Carter, inventor of the Bose noise-canceling headphones
Encouraging creativity and innovation in the workplace is a key driver of growth, employee engagement, and retention.
Creative and innovative employees are more engaged and motivated and are more likely to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.
But part of creativity, innovation, and growth is a failure. In innovative organizations, failure should be seen as a learning opportunity. It is important to create an environment where it is okay to fail.
This means that employees need to feel safe and comfortable sharing their ideas and taking risks. Employees also need to know that they will not be penalized for making mistakes.
In order for employees to feel comfortable taking risks, they need to feel that their manager is supportive and has their back. Managers can show their support by providing feedback that is positive, constructive, and focused on the future.
When an employee fails, as a manager you should help them learn from the experience and identify what went wrong.
You can do this by asking questions such as "What were you trying to achieve?" "What were the key challenges you faced?" "What will you change or adjust for your next attempt?"
These questions are future-focused and will help employees learn from failure rather than feeling guilty for failing.
Throughout my work, I have rarely been asked to solve or execute something that has been done before; I mostly work on new or emerging technologies and problems.
This means that what we do is being done for the first time by us, and we should expect and accept failures along the way.
I didn’t know this when I started in these type of roles, but over time, this has proved to be some of the most important and valuable lessons on the path towards effectiveness and feeling confident that, even if I don’t know how to solve the problem at-hand, I know I can try, learn, try again and that eventually, with the right amount of help and support, the team will be successful.
7. Actively listen to your people, teams, and organization
Active listening is a communication technique and soft skill that involves paying close attention to the person who is speaking, not interrupting them, making eye contact, and taking notes if necessary.
Yes, this is an interpersonal skill that managers need to have as it is essential to creating a company culture where employees feel a sense of support and empowerment.
The purpose of active listening is to ensure that the speaker feels heard and understood. This is helpful for both new and experienced managers, as it allows them to gain a deeper understanding of their employees' thoughts and feelings. In turn, managers can better support their employees and help them to achieve their goals.
Active listening also helps to build trust between the manager and the employee. When employees feel heard and understood, they are more likely to feel valued and supported by their manager. This can lead to a more positive work environment, and better employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
Also, when conflict finds your team or organization, one of the most important tools in your toolbox as a manager is active listening because, when emotions are high, it can sometimes be difficult for anyone involved to focus on what others are saying.
By practicing active listening it shows that you value the person who is speaking, even if you do not agree with them or understand why they are upset, and helps prevent conflict from escalating by ensuring that all parties are heard and understood.
For more on how to listen: How To Listen Better, A Look At The Different Levels Of Listening
8. Celebrate successes
When people feel that their hard work is recognized and appreciated it will leave them feeling more engaged and motivated, which will result in them being more productive and contributing more to the organization.
A successful people management strategy includes celebrating successes with employees and thanking them for their hard work.
Ring the bell!
Celebrate your employees by sharing the news of their success with others and congratulating them publicly. You can do this in person, on virtual collaboration platforms, and even on LinkedIn!
People love to hear about the successes of the company and their fellow co-workers. It makes them feel like they are a part of something bigger and that their work is valuable.
Related Read: 30 Creative Employee Recognition And Appreciation Ideas
Bonus: navigating remote work
My teams have been fully remote since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the west coast of the United States.
Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, my team has collaborated remotely with colleagues across the globe.
After almost 2-years of managing direct reports through a webcam and headset, I have found unique ways to build connectedness across the team, facilitate decision-making, build new skills, and continue to deliver results.
Here is my checklist for being a great manager of individual contributors and/or people leaders remotely, from anywhere in the world.
- Get to know your people. Learn about their lives, their competencies, goals, and what they like to do outside of work. This will help build empathy and connectedness.
- Connect casually and frequently. Consistently schedule time to meet with your people. 25 mins every week or two is best for most cases. Your employees should guide this time as it should be focused on their performance growth and development.
- Adapt your leadership style per employee and for the context. You may need to spend more time with some members of your team than others depending on their development and needs. Spend the time where needed and manage each employee to their needs, not yours. Treat your people not how you want to be treated, but how they want to be treated.
- Encourage professional development. Just because people are working from home doesn’t mean they should stop learning. Learning can help break the feeling of “meh” and move us towards new competencies, skills, and interests.
- Build connections and encourage teamwork. It can be difficult for people to meet others and build real relationships from home when trying to “complete initiatives”. Consider what your teams can do for fun, from home! Jackbox games are a huge hit with my team and can be played via Zoom.
Practice empathy, always. At many companies, people-first is a core value. I expand this to mean my role as a leader is to be empathy-first. When your people or their families get sick or need support, practice empathy. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if someone missed a meeting or had to reschedule your 1:1. People matter. How you make your people feel matters. Practice empathy and be flexible.
Are you ready to level up your people management skills?
People management is a difficult task at times but, with the right tips and techniques, it can be easier than you think.
In order to be a good people manager, you need to be good at conflict resolution, active listening, and providing feedback.
You also need to be able to encourage creativity and innovation in the workplace, embrace failure, and celebrate successes. If you can master these skills, you will be able to manage people more effectively and create a more engaged and productive workforce.
- Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help As A New Manager (and How to Do It)
- How To Handle Awkward And Uncomfortable Conversations: What Every New Manager Should Know
- Essential Guide to One-On-One Meetings For Managers (+Template)
- How To Fire Someone The Right Way: 10 Must-Do’s
- How to Lead Through Change Or Become A Change Leader
- How to Lead With Empathy
- 5 Simple Steps To Manage An Underperforming Employee
- How to Support New Managers With A People Partner Program
- 43 Timeless Leadership Quotes
- Best Note Taking Apps for Boosting Productivity
- 2023 HR Statistics Every People Manager Should Know
- How To Effectively Develop Managers To Lead Your Organization
- How AI Can Support You Being A Great Manager
- Decoding Leadership: The Best 17 Books on Managing People
Best of luck and feel free to hit me up in the comments or in the People Managing People community with any questions or suggestions.