Lucy Adams
October 12, 2022
Reading time: 12 minutes
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What can we do about poor managers?

If I could sum up THE key issue that every HR person seems to have, it would be these three words; ‘poor people managers’.

Almost everything we do stems from this. Such as:

  • Answering countless questions because they aren’t sure how to handle people issues
  • Taking responsibility for the conversations they should really be having
  • Designing rules, policies and processes to help them – or make them – get better at the people stuff
  • Providing expensive training
  • Creating competency frameworks and other measurement tools to hire or promote better ones
  • Implementing tech systems to enable them to self-serve – but having to still do it for them anyway!
  • And of course, managing the fall out from poor line management – hiring new people to replace the ones they’ve lost, grievances and sometimes, tribunals

We have created an industry that is designed to compensate for poor people managers. I don’t believe that we chose the HR profession to play nursemaid or compliance officer. But that’s where most of us tend to end up! And whilst we’re trying desperately to prop up our managers, we’re not focusing our efforts and talents on the things that would actually make the difference. Instead of compensating, we should be creating the conditions where our people can be more agile, more innovative and more productive. We want to spend our time creating an amazing and differentiated employee experience – not collecting in appraisal forms or writing a policy for home working because our managers can’t cope with having a grown-up conversation with their team!

So, what’s the answer? Well, the simple and unhelpful one would be – don’t hire managers who don’t want to manage people! But we know that for years we have been promoting people into line manager roles who really only wanted the increase in pay or status, or who were the best technically or who saw line management as the only progression route available. So, whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with them! So, here are some options that you might want to consider.

Find out why they are bad at it

Not every poor manager has the same barrier to being better. So, we need a mix of tactics to cater for these differences. Our typical approach of designing around the lowest common denominator risks missing what makes individual managers tick and what might help them get better. Yes, there will be those who just aren’t interested – more about them later. But there will also be those who are unclear about what they need to do, or those who lack confidence or those who want to do the right thing but who are highly introverted and struggle with the idea of conversations. Try using the ‘persona’ tactic that we can borrow from Marketing where you analyse your line manager population and identify a small number of line manager persona – or types – based on their motivations and challenges around people management. Then work out your approaches and support packages.

Focus on the outcomes you want from them – not the process

We are so keen to have them do the right thing by their people that we tend to provide them with detailed processes to follow – performance reviews, bonus allocation, 9 box grid completion and so on. But we end up providing one size fits all approaches and often overlook the actual quality of the outcomes. Consider identifying the outcomes you want from them instead. What would good people management look like for you? SAP identified three very simple outputs for their managers:

  1. Coach your team
  2. Show appreciation and
  3. Lead with trust

They didn’t say HOW they were to deliver these outcomes. They allowed managers to do it in ways that worked for them and their personality. But they also measured it through regular pulse surveys. Holding people managers accountable is often missing. We measure and publish their financial and operational results don’t we? So, why not their people results?

Support with stuff that works

I’m not saying we should eliminate our leadership development programmes entirely, but given the amount we spend on them, we really ought to have seen better results by now! Consider alternative support resources that work with their busy schedules but that are also proven to have a bigger impact – such as using nudges or peer to peer support, or short and sweet interventions such as O2’s learning shots – 3 minute videos that give managers something practical to try. You might want to check out our Conversations Toolkit which gives managers a simple set of tips and conversation starters to use.

Stop compensating

Finally – and this can be really hard for us – make a decision to stop compensating for poor people managers. I know that this might feel like giving up our life’s work – but, trust me, once you make this shift, it can free you up to be much more impactful.

In practice, this looks like:

  1. Focusing our energies on the ones that are a bit more curious and open to doing things better. Like at Standard Chartered where they have reinvested their development budget into ’emerging’ rather than senior leaders. They’ve recognised that working with the ones who are open to doing things differently has a much bigger impact than trying to get leaders of 20-30 years to change.
  2. Dropping processes that try and force managers to do things that they end up doing badly – like the end of year review. We can’t feel proud that we’ve got 95% completion rate when the quality is so poor. Better that we focus on the smaller changes they might introduce – like at Atlassian where managers are asked to cover a couple of questions with their team such as ‘what are you working on and how can I help?’
  3. And finally, let’s stop diluting, delaying and compromising on our plans to change HR to keep our poorest and often our noisiest people managers on board. Try telling them that ‘they’re not ready for this new approach’ and that ‘we’re going to work with the ones who are’. This at least reduces their objections and enables us to make change happen – and often, this actually makes them WANT to take part.

I’m not sure who first thought of the idea of an HR function. But whoever it was, I’m sure they never imagined us spending our valuable talents and energies on propping up poor managers. If we focus instead on targeted strategies, holding them accountable for clear outcomes and a creative mix of support, we will create far more value for our organisations.

If you want to help your people managers do it better, then check out Disruptive Leaders. Disruptive Leaders is a live platform that gives your people managers the tips, tools and insights they need to manage people brilliantly!

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