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Whether they’re open about it or not, some leaders just aren’t very good at people management, and that can be devastating for the workplace. So what can you do about it?

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to find a people manager who doesn’t do ‘people stuff’. Often this occurs because organisations promote technical experts, but they don’t support them with the tools, development or mindset to help them move from being an individual contributor to a leader of people. And there is a big difference. 

‘Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to find a people manager who doesn’t do “people stuff”’

Not everybody can make that jump, it can be especially hard for people who work in very technical roles, like scientists, engineers, or IT professionals. But in other professions as well, it can be really difficult if you have somebody with a great deal of knowledge who gets promoted. Suddenly they have a team of people, and it just doesn’t work out very well. 

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Poor people managers

Often people say to me, ‘if we have someone with a lot of knowledge, that’s better than any other skills that they could bring to that management role’. But I completely disagree. I believe that if you’re in a management role, or you’re a senior leader in an organisation, the most important part of your job is actually leading people. 

As a people manager your job is to provide knowledge through the leadership of people. Your job is not to do the day-to-day, it’s not to be a technical expert anymore. So if you don’t have people skills, it doesn’t matter how much technical knowledge you have, you are not going to be effective. And your team’s not going to be effective. 

 ‘if you don’t have people skills, it doesn’t matter how much technical knowledge you have, you are not going to be effective.’

Not valuing people 

Managers that are not interested in managing people see their team members as headaches. They see them as a burden on the bottom line, they become a dollar sign. They think, ‘this person is costing me so much’. They don’t see people as valuable and that comes through in all of their behaviours and actions. 

Avoiding conflict

Poor managers also avoid conflict, which makes issues fester. I’ve said this many times over my HR career. There will be little niggly issues, and over time, they snowball. They become a huge problem in the company that could have been prevented, if the issue wasn’t avoided in the first place

‘Poor managers also avoid conflict, which makes issues fester’

Pushing issues to HR

Often poor managers will push issues to HR. For example, a people-management conversation that needs to be had, or performance management. They might ask the HR person to speak in a meeting, or ask them to handle a redundancy. 

All this does is reduce the manager’s reputation as an effective manager. Imagine if you were an employee, and your manager needed to performance manage you, or terminate your employment, or pass on a complaint that’s been made against you – any of those difficult conversations. 

Imagine if your manager did not handle it themselves, and instead you have an HR person in the room who you may or may not have ever met before giving you that information. You think well, what’s going on with my manager? It really reduces their reputation as an effective manager.

It also diminishes the HR person’s role as a third party. HR should be the person that assists both sides and should be an escalation point available to employees. So by putting your HR person in that staff-management role, you’re diminishing their role as a mediator. Instead HR becomes the policy police in your organisation, which is a complete waste of time if you want your organisation to scale and grow. 

Creating productivity issues

These are the sorts of problems that start to form when we have people managers who don’t like managing people. And those problems will show up as: 

  • conflict
  • grievances
  • reduced turnover
  • lower productivity 
  • gossip
  • other dysfunctional behaviours. 

All of a sudden, from just one manager who doesn’t want to manage people, you end up with whole teams of people who are impacted. We need to do something about it. So what do we do? 

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Supporting good people management

Firstly, you should be making it clear that managing people and leading a team are an important part of any management role in your organisation. 

Making it job no 1

I remember years ago, an HR director stood up at a management conference and said, ‘Here’s your new job description, everybody’. And he handed everyone on the management team the same generic leadership job description

What he was trying to demonstrate was, it doesn’t matter if you’re in finance, or engineering, or marketing or sales, if you’re a manager, managing people is your main role. You just happen to be doing it in those functions. So we need to make that really clear, that is our expectation. 

Managing behaviours

We also need to manage behaviours, as well as results. I’m sure you’ve come across people who are fantastic at getting results, meaning they hit their KPIs, but their behaviours are worrisome. And behaviours are much harder to change, then skills

If you have somebody that is not behaving to expectations, you must manage that behaviour, no matter what their actual results are. You must set the expectations for their behaviours. 

Developing managers

You should also be developing people as you put them into management roles. And if they’re already there, you still need to develop them. You need to take a look at what you need to do to develop them as a leader in this business. So you might look at emotional intelligence, testing and development. You might get them a coach, and really invest some time into this. 

Recognising poor managers

Perhaps as part of the development process, or after that process has started going, if they still don’t change, then you might need to have an honest conversation about whether they’re up to the challenge of leading others

Some people just aren’t, some people have no interest. They’ve got no skill and no will. Or maybe they have the skill, but no will. Either way, it’s not going to work. Then you need to have an honest conversation and ask, ‘is this something you really want to do?’ 

And if they’re valuable enough as a technical expert, perhaps you just need to restructure and take them out of that management role. Because if they’re still valuable to the business, it may just be that they’re not valuable as a people leader. 

Valuing leaders

Your people leadership roles are some of the most important you’re ever going to have in your business, they will have the most impact in terms of their engagement and productivity. So you need to make sure you have the right people in the right seats in those roles. 

So have a think about the people who are the managers in your organisation. Is there any opportunity here to reset the expectations about how leadership works in your organisation? And is there anybody that you need to start developing? 

If you allow managers who don’t ‘do people well’ to continue managing people in your organisation, you are going to see those downsides: conflict, dysfunction and a culture that could quickly slide into apathy or toxicity

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