How to support and develop modern managers

Many managers lack the competence to function effectively, Amrit Sandhar shows how to identify and support those struggling

With organisations focused on driving performance, it’s understandable that when looking at succession planning, the first people they tend to go to are those individuals who are performing well. Yet despite the skills needed to drive individual performance being vastly different to those required to deliver team performance, and without any other obvious measures to identify potentially good managers, we promote people who could turn out to be completely ill-equipped. 

There are some signs that will identify those individuals struggling in role, who might need additional support, after all, incompetent doesn’t mean permanently ineffective. If left unchecked, these behaviours can wreak havoc on the commitment, dedication and engagement of hard-working individuals who want nothing more than to do a hard-day’s work, make a positive impact, and be recognised for their efforts. 

How can we identify those managers who lack the competence to manage effectively? 

They create intense working environments

Managers lacking the competence to lead and manage their teams can end up working extremely long hours and expecting the same of everyone around them. There is a risk that the sheer panic of what’s expected, and the fear of not knowing how to deliver this, can lead to some managers getting caught up in minute details, losing sight of the bigger picture. These intense periods of work can result in emotional outbursts, and frustrations that working long hours (masking the lack of knowledge), are not leading to improved results. In a pre-covid world where presenteeism mattered, some managers were perceived as effective, due to them working long hours. While things have evolved, some managers are still less likely to be challenged on their poor performance, because of the perception of how hard they are working. 

Managers don’t want to be seen as inadequate, but how is anyone ever going to become competent without learning?

They drive unpleasant behaviours

The stress of trying to drive performance from a team, when managers don’t know how to effectively manage, can often lead to emotional outbursts, feelings of anxiety and tension amongst the team, and managers feeling out of control. This can lead to the micromanagement of individuals, with the team being blamed for the poor performance. A sense of chaos is also likely with constantly changing priorities, driven by the latest performance report, causing a culture of fear and compliance, without anyone understanding what’s really going on. High-performing team members can end up managing most of the work, as well as the blame for when things go wrong, leaving them questioning their own abilities, and combined with the long working hours, leading to burnout, resulting in some hating working with their manager.

They become the topic of conversation

When the manager becomes the narrative for most people at work, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong. While great managers may occasionally be praised, the stories of ineffective managers are likely to be a daily discussion. When one individual can cause work to feel so toxic, then it’s understandable for people to come together through a Dunkirk spirit, finding ways of surviving each day together. Team members may feel uncomfortable being around their overbearing manager, no longer having any social conversations amongst themselves in the presence of an individual who has taken any joy out of work.

This seems like a bleak picture and thankfully many people don’t come across managers lacking competence in this way, but for those that are struggling, how can we address the issue of competence with managers, and support them in their role?

Provide them with care and compassion

No manager wants to come to work to create a toxic work culture, but the fear of being labelled incompetent, may lead to behaviours which cause some managers to create that very culture. The expectation to come into a management role for the first time, and know how to manage, is completely wrong unless managers are supported, trained, and shown how to manage effectively. The issue is never with them, but with those who promoted them, without providing the skills and knowledge to be effective in their roles.

Imagine the stress managers experience, trying to deliver performance, and trying to do it all themselves, while aware the team are not engaged and not supportive. Acknowledging the efforts being made by the manager, while sharing observations of the impact this way of working might be having on their self-care and wellbeing, can begin the process of helping the manager realise this way of working, isn’t working. Managers don’t want to be seen as inadequate, but how is anyone ever going to become competent without learning?

Creating a psychologically safe environment, allowing the manager to truly share how work is for them, and providing them with a support structure will help break this vicious cycle, which negatively impacts everyone. Managers are expected to provide their teams with quality 1-2-1s, yet how often are managers themselves receiving quality time with their own line managers? Regular time to understand how managers are getting on and the support they need, can help reset and recharge individuals, through realistic goals and celebrating successes.

Remove their fear of isolation

There’s so much pressure on managers who are often seen as the ‘squeezed middle’, being challenged by their superiors, while expected to drive performance with limited resources. Managers don’t often want to share their fears with their teams, as this could undermine their authority. Supporting managers through peer support groups can be a fantastic way of allowing managers to realise they are not alone, facing similar challenges as many others. Creating ‘best practice’ meetings, where managers can share their challenges and understand how others have dealt with similar issues, can create a support network, where opening up is not threatening, especially if the peer groups are made of individuals from diverse parts of the organisation where there is little overlap of work.

Develop their competence

No longer are managers expected to be the font of all knowledge, instead their effectiveness comes from understanding how to support, motivate and get the best from their team. Learning conversational coaching skills, effective time management, delegation and how to communicate effectively, are critical to the success of managers and their teams. Sometimes, knowing how to do something isn’t enough, as other aspects of life can get in the way of being able to demonstrate that knowledge. Providing managers with a short series of coaching sessions might also help nudge them into removing barriers that might be caused by mindsets, low confidence, or bad experiences. 

Incompetence is often seen as a derogatory phrase, yet how is anyone to become competent without the appropriate support? Individuals can be developed to become brilliant managers, as well as being provided with peer support and individual coaching to truly unlock their potential. It’s imperative that leaders across organisations are aware of the signs that might indicate their managers require additional support and development, due to the impact they are having on themselves, their teams and team performance. 

Amrit Sandhar is the founder of The Engagement Coach.

Amrit Sandhar

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