Small businesses across the country are pulling out all the stops to provide a great employee experience that helps them retain their best workers.
Yet, all these efforts will be for naught if small businesses fail to address the factor that negatively affects employees on a day-to-day basis more than any other: bad managers.
According to a Gallup study, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across organizations. The problem is so widespread that half of all U.S adults have left a job sometime in their career because of a bad manager.
Blame poor hiring practices, a lack of proper managerial training, or the Peter principle, but every day your small business is plagued by bad management is another day you risk watching your top talent make their exit.
Small businesses that identify and develop good people managers can improve employee retention by anywhere from 26 to 50%. But in order to do so, small businesses need to know which people-manager skills translate to success in the first place.
To help you prioritize your managerial development efforts, here are five skills that research says every people manager should have, along with tips on how to develop these important skills at your small business.
What the research says
When Google analyzed thousands of employee feedback surveys about management to determine the traits that defined their best managers, they found predictability was the most important factor. The more predictable and consistent a manager was rated by their direct reports, the better they performed.
Why predictability is an important people manager skill
Dynamic, eccentric leaders such as Elon Musk or Richard Branson can certainly draw a crowd and make headlines, but do you really want these people as managers? Absolutely not.
In fact, the more boring your managers are, the better, and the reason why is simple. If an employee knows what to expect from their manager on a day-to-day basis, that gives them defined parameters within which they can operate. There’s little ambiguity on what they can and can’t do, and that actually creates a ton of freedom.
On the other hand, if an employee never knows what they’re going to get from their manager, those parameters are never fully defined. Something that’s OK one day is suddenly not OK the next, and that leads to a restrictive work environment plagued by indecision.
How to develop predictable people managers
Being predictable and consistent boils down to three factors: punctuality, communication, and emotional intelligence.
The first one should be simple to address. If you never know if a manager is going to show up to a meeting on time (or at all), that’s the opposite of predictable. You can try introducing a deterrent such as factoring tardiness into performance reviews, but nothing will be as effective as setting a good example from the top down. If your CEO is never punctual, managers won’t be either.
Poor communication can be more difficult to address as it can be an individual problem or a larger organizational one. In addition to training sessions on effective in-person and email communication—including workshops for managers to learn everyone’s preferred communication style—you should also refine your goal-setting process as an organization to ensure that every manager knows what’s expected from their department and can communicate that.
Lastly, your managers need to learn to manage their emotions. If a good day has them singing, but a bad day sends them spiraling, their employees will never have solid ground to stand on. Coach your managers on different stress management techniques to help them at least appear more even-keeled.
What the research says
Development Dimensions International (DDI) analyzed more than 15,000 leaders across 300 companies over a decade and found that leaders who demonstrated empathy perform 40% better in “overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and decision-making.”
Why empathy is an important people-manager skill
Ultimately, empathy builds trust. If workers feel like they’re truly seen, heard, and understood by their manager, they become much more likely to trust that manager to make the right decisions.
Empathetic managers are also able to wring the most potential out of their workforce. When managers show that they care by showing their appreciation, workers will reciprocate that appreciation with more effort.
Finally, managers that have high empathy tend to also be excellent communicators. They’re better able to anticipate how their workers will digest information and adjust their message accordingly.
How to develop empathetic people managers
Empathy is a skill that’s on the decline. Sociology studies have found that empathy among children and college students has been on the decline for more than a decade, which is bleeding into the workforce.
Still, there are things you can do. For one, you should promote from within whenever possible. Managers who actually did the jobs of their subordinates are more likely to be empathetic toward their needs and frustrations than someone from the outside.
You should also stress the importance of disconnecting from technology, especially in meetings. Experts agree that smartphones and computers have become a barrier to empathy in face-to-face conversation, so implementing a company-wide “no devices in meetings unless necessary” policy can be beneficial to getting managers to really listen to their workers.
Lastly, there’s direct empathy training—something which 20% of employers now offer.
What the research says
In a survey of more than 7,000 employees and managers worldwide, Gartner found that Connector Managers—managers who are able to connect workers with relevant experts in their network for training and development—improve employee performance by up to 26%. In addition, employees under Connector Managers are three times more likely to be high performers.
Why connectivity is an important people-manager skill
A good manager doesn’t just assign and delegate; they also coach and develop. Close to 60% of the difference in employee perceptions of manager support can be explained by whether managers offer their workers “opportunities to develop the technical, management, and leadership skills necessary for future success.”
Yet, not every manager handles this responsibility in the same way. Through its survey, Gartner identified four common approaches to employee training and development that managers use: Teacher, Always On, Connector, and Cheerleader.
(Source—full research available to Gartner clients)
Gartner’s results found that Connector Managers achieve the best results by introducing employees to experts in their network when that employee’s developmental needs fall outside of their wheelhouse—enabling workers to get the ideal mix of support and knowledge they need to grow.
This connectivity skill isn’t just important for managers either. One entrepreneurial researcher found that the most important factor to career success was whether a person was part of a large, open network or not.
How to develop connective people managers
According to Gartner, becoming a Connector Manager starts with diagnosing individual employee needs and motivations. Instead of a one-size-fits-all training approach, Connector Managers deliver targeted coaching and support.
Connector Managers also need to understand their employees’ strengths. There may be one employee who would be a superb coach or teacher for another, but your managers won’t know unless they begin to build that internal Rolodex of the experts they have around them. Managers can develop skills profiles of their workers in a performance management system for easier recall.
Lastly, besides broadening their network of experts through tools such as LinkedIn, Connector Managers should also coach their employees on how to get the most out of their interactions with others. Connector Managers don’t always play a direct role in development, but they should give workers the tools and knowledge they need to thrive with other teachers.
What the research says
Dale Carnegie Training polled 3,100 workers in 13 different countries and found that 84% of employees want managers who have the humility to admit when they’re wrong, but only 51% of managers actually do this regularly.
Why humility is an important people manager skill
It may seem counterintuitive, but failure is really important to the ultimate success of your small business. Only when given the freedom to make mistakes and the opportunity to learn and grow from them are employees able to discover better solutions to individual or company-wide problems.
Unfortunately, that logic flies in the face of typical corporate culture, in which mistakes are punished harshly at worst or blatantly ignored at best. (When it comes to holding others accountable at work, 82% of employees either try and fail, or avoid it altogether.)
What’s the solution to this culture of fear? Humble leaders. If you have a group of humble leaders who admit their mistakes, their workers won’t be afraid to admit their mistakes either. And that helps foster the creativity your small business needs.
How to develop humble people managers
Finding humble people managers is admittedly a lot easier than developing them. Review your hiring practices to ensure you’re including interview questions that can uncover humble qualities in applicants. For example: If you ask about a candidate’s biggest accomplishment, see if they talk about an individual achievement or a time when they helped others achieve too.
Otherwise, a great way to inject more humility into your leadership ranks is to push managers out of their comfort zone. If managers never have to leave the safety bubble of their areas of expertise, they’ll never be humbled by failure.
A great time to do this is during performance reviews. Instead of simply discussing areas for improvement with your managers and moving on, take the next step and actually give them the resources they need to develop. Recommending a workshop, class, or online course takes the guesswork out of next steps.
What the research says
In a study of 195 leaders across 30 global organizations, more participants selected “having high ethical and moral standards” as the most important leadership trait (67%) than any other.
Why integrity is an important people-manager skill
I’ve talked already about building trust in the empathy section, but there’s another side of this equation that deserves equal thought: the next-to-impossible task of recovering trust once it’s been violated.
Just ask Wells Fargo—a bank that, two years later, is still trying to regain customer trust after creating millions of fake bank accounts using customers’ information. Or Equifax, which took the crown of most-hated company in America after waiting a month and a half to publicly disclose one of the largest data breaches in history.
Facing a slew of tough decisions every day, managers can easily become enticed (or outright encouraged) to take the unethical shortcut like workers at those companies did. It takes a manager with integrity to resist that urge, knowing that if they’re found out, their subordinates may never trust them again.
How to develop people managers with integrity
Don’t underestimate the impact of highly visible company values. From the employee handbook they receive on their first day, to the hallways they walk through every day, managers should always be aware that doing the right thing is a core belief in your organization. (Side note: If you’re having trouble creating a mission statement or company values that stick, we have tips to help here and here.)
Besides that, it comes down to taking the time to actually run managers through real-life, gray-area scenarios that take place at your business. Don’t assume that managers will know what the right decision is when the times comes—tell them.
Invest in software to do the heavy lifting on managerial development
Research shows that these five skills—predictability, empathy, connectivity, humility, and integrity— are vitally important when it comes to being a good people manager. And recall what we said at the start: Small businesses that identify and develop good people managers can improve employee retention by anywhere from 26 to 50%.
Still, it’s one thing to know you need to develop your managers and another thing to actually do it. Many of the solutions we discussed here involve diagnosing personnel skills needs and creating new training content that’s both impactful and engaging.
A learner’s course dashboard in LearnUpon (Source)
That’s a monumental task to put on one person or department, which is why you should consider investing in a learning management system. These increasingly affordable software platforms can automate tedious tasks related to training-course creation and administration.
Many vendors even package premade course libraries with their systems that cover the very topics we’ve mentioned here.
Note: The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. The applications selected are examples to show a feature in context, and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations.