When I took my first people management job, a mentor told me, “Just remember: everyone is terrible at managing people for at least two years.” While it was reassuring to hear that I had some leeway, it would likely have been more helpful to get concrete tips about managing people, rather than an assurance that I, like everyone, was going to mess it up for a long time. But when different things drive different people, there’s no one size fits all approach to people management. So how do you ensure your employees are excelling under your company’s leaders?
Some leaders, like Travis Kalanick and Ray Dalio, are notorious for their aggressive people management strategies and intense direct communication. Some like Bob Iger and James Sinegal are known for gentle leadership, and to place great importance on the wellbeing of their employees. Both groups have mastered methods of people and person management that work within their companies.
Although there are many different types of leadership, there are various leadership skills that are universal, and essential to any effective management style.
In this article, I talk about these essential people management skills, their importance, and how to develop your own leadership abilities as you follow your career path.
What is People Management?
An employee once described her manager’s work at a previous organization to me. She said it was hiring a team of individual contributors, assessing the work to be assigned, setting deadlines, and ensuring the right work was completed at the right time. My employee then told me, “And she always talked about what ‘we’ as a team had accomplished when she didn’t do anything!”
On the flip side, there is a commonly accepted split in the academic and MBA world between leadership and management, that says that being a leader is being bold, strategic, and visionary, while being a manager is the rote execution of the day-to-day work. Honestly, I think both of these are a little bit right and a little bit wrong.
People management is finding the balance between what the company needs —interpreting high-level goals and strategic direction for your team’s work — and what your employees need to feel valued and successful. The day-to-day work of your team is what allows the company to thrive, but work that’s not the right work, at the right time, or doesn’t align with your company’s goals is wasted effort and expenditure that a company won’t support forever.
The 13 Best People Management Skills of All Time
1. Looking at the Big Picture
Strategy and alignment of all efforts to that strategy are critical in your role. A high-level understanding of the company and its goals is essential. Being a manager means you are responsible for meeting short-term deliverables, as well as long-term development of your organization and its people. As Jocko Wilink and Leif Babin say in Extreme Ownership, as a leader, you are responsible for everything, so you better understand why you’re asking your team to do what they’re doing.
It is important to understand the details of operations within your organization, but not to get swept up in the day-to-day at your workplace. The result of getting too involved at every level is that you’ll end up micromanaging processes, which means that your managerial priorities get overlooked in favor of small tasks.
Similarly, a great manager knows when to pick a battle and when it’s not beneficial for them to sweat the small stuff. Consider an employee who is having trouble staying punctual. They keep coming late because they need to drop off a child at school. A manager who knows what really matters won’t sweat the 15 minutes, as long as the employee’s performance is reliably good.
2. Macro Management
Macro management is a leadership style where you communicate goals, but leave it to your team’s insight, decision-making, and expertise to meet them. This type of leadership inspires independence and only gives feedback and direction when it is asked for. This is, quite literally, what you hired your team to do. So why would you try to do their work for them?
The suggested way to macro manage is to make sure the tasks you assign clear deliverables and these are communicated properly. Everyone needs to understand what their responsibilities are. Simultaneously, your team must know that you are available to step in and offer guidance whenever they need it.
My policy is always: I will never be mad at an employee for flagging a problem, but I will always be upset with someone trying to hide a problem from me. My job is to clear roadblocks and deal with the problems that crop up for the team, and I can only do my job if my team is free to do their job and keep me posted.
As a manager, it is important to have the right workload. Knowing when to delegate your tasks and when to take them on yourself is just as important as trusting your employees to do theirs effectively.
If you put too much work on your team’s shoulders, resentment will grow. If you put too little on them, they will notice and feel left out. Additionally, you would be taking opportunities for growth and development away from them.
Management itself is a full-time job. Don’t expect yourself to assist, motivate, and lead your team while putting too much on your plate.
The executive coach Holly Burton once said to me: You need to stop talking about productivity and start talking about creating value. Being a manager means you don’t have a deep list of tasks to go to every day, because your job is making sure things are getting done, not doing it all yourself.
4. Communication Skills
The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential in leadership. Employees look up to you for guidance, motivation, and direction in times of crisis. Communicating your expectations and knowing when to check in with people is key to avoiding misunderstandings at the workplace.
Effective communication becomes even more important when dealing with high-pressure situations, like managing change.
While it may seem like the basics, you need to check every one of these off the list, not just some:
- Listen to your team! Take careful note of their concerns, and confirm that you understand exactly what they mean, even if that means you repeat back to them what they said to you. This is known as active listening.
- Make sure everyone knows what their duties are, and what expectations you have of them. Whether you use KPIs, OKRs, task management software, or a Google doc — there should never be confusion about what the work is.
- Provide productive feedback on employee performance. This doesn’t just mean a laundry list of what they can do better — what they do well is also part of the puzzle here.
- Be honest with employees when something is wrong. They already know something’s not right, and you’re not helping anyone by hiding information.
- Acknowledge and answer questions from your team.
5. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is both the buzzword du jour and a critical skill. The way we feel impacts how we think and how we act (as my therapist tells me regularly), and pretending that your emotions (and the emotions of the people you work with) simply shut off when you sit down to work doesn’t help anyone.
Emotional intelligence is something you need in abundance in a corporate leadership setting. The CEO who is always yelling is having an emotional response, and the trigger might not be the topic he’s currently yelling at you about. Whether it’s a big meeting or when you’re managing your team, being able to understand and influence someone’s emotional state is an essential people management skill.
You can develop emotional intelligence by first learning to recognize and regulate your own emotions by practicing mindfulness, and then learning to discern the emotional needs of others. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and think about how your feelings are impacting your communication.
6. Building Trust
No manager can lead effectively if their team doesn’t trust them. But as trust is not a given, the ability to build trust is crucial.
When employees trust their manager, they are more likely to come to them with problems. In cases where most employees would fear for their job security, like a recession, an assured team would trust you to look out for their best interests.
There is no shortcut to earning the trust of employees, but you can start with:
- Admitting when you’ve made poor judgment calls.
- Listening to the team member who has more expertise than you on a given subject.
- Listening to an employee’s reasons for making a poor judgment call.
- Giving public credit to great work.
- Delivering on expectations you set.
- Defending and promoting your team's initiatives, merits and efforts.
“Praise in public, chastise in private” is always a good rule to live by.
To lead your team to success, you first need them to care about your common goal. Your ability to motivate them could be the difference between success and disappointment.
People have different motivational drivers. Some are concerned with money, while others want acknowledgment. Finding out what motivates each of your employees, and giving them the satisfaction of obtaining it is an indispensable managerial skill.
No one is immune to making mistakes. Leaders need to know when to take accountability for a bad call. They also need to know when to step up to share the blame when the team has messed up.
When your employees see you being honest and taking responsibility, it will foster trust and respect for you at work.
Some things are harder to talk about than others, but having hard conversations is part of the job for any effective manager. Honesty is especially important when:
- Providing negative feedback.
- Changes need to happen in the workplace.
- You’ve made a mistake or a bad decision that affects the team.
Your employees need you to be honest with them for the sake of their own growth, and to cultivate a positive work environment.
Practice saying the tough things before you meet! Make notes for yourself if you’ll need them. I always practice saying it in the harshest way possible, so if I weasel out of being direct (which we all do, let’s be honest) I’ll still get the important pieces delivered.
It’s impossible to give everyone what they want all the time. Chances are that you will often need to negotiate compromises between yourself and members of your team. It helps when you treat leadership as a give-and-take.
You will sometimes go to your own management to pitch for a team member’s promotion or raise and get shut down — and your employee might never know you went to bat for them, only hear that you said “no.” It’s a rough situation, but it’s your job to absorb that blow.
You don’t know everything, and your experience is not universal. Having a diverse and inclusive team, and a leadership style that allows for everyone in your team to have a voice and room to contribute from their unique skill set is critical.
Caroline Criado-Perez’s excellent book Invisible Women has example after example of data sets that were generated without including women — causing smartphones to be too big for women’s hands, car crashes to be more fatal for women, and even the protective gear women in the military and police wear to be ineffective because it’s designed for men’s bodies. If 50% of the population is left out of data sets that impact our day-to-day lives, I am confident you are not hearing all of the voices that you could in your work.
At the end of the day, inclusivity allows you and your company to benefit from the knowledge and expertise others have. It also has the added bonus of making your employees feel like part of the result, as opposed to feeling like they’re just voiceless tools going along with your orders. If all the voices within your company are represented, you can improve employee engagement, retention, and team results.
12. Decisiveness and Positivity
Once you have made a decision, you need to be able to stick to it, see it through, and maintain conviction — unless faced with data that proves you were wrong. In that case, you need to accept you were wrong and lean into the pivot. If you do not believe you’re able to lead your team and exude that to those around you, it is almost certain that they won’t either.
A leader’s mood and attitude are often contagious. For your team to trust your decisions, you need to first show them that you believe in what you’re saying.
13. Giving and Receiving Feedback
There will be people both higher up and below you on the corporate ladder who will have opinions about your leadership. Take that feedback – especially from your team – and acknowledge areas that need improvement.
It is also an important skill to give feedback at the right time and when employees need it the most. Some encouraging words can help a struggling employee do better, and some constructive criticism at the right moment can help another employee improve.
Why are People Management Skills Important?
People management refers to a group of practical and soft skills that collectively make someone a good leader, motivator, and manager.
At the risk of sounding trite, people management skills are important because you’re managing people, and people have different interests and motivations for doing their work. Some people want to feel like they’re part of a team working toward group goals, and some people want to do their work and go home. Your office and team culture will differ depending on your organization's management strategy, but the fact that your team is made up of individuals who need individualized attention and efforts won’t change. A people-first management style is therefore your main goal.
Acquiring various people management skills helps managers become both high-performing team members, and great leaders. Here is how your work life will improve if you acquire or build out the following people management skills:
Mastering Communication and Trust
If your team has no faith in you, they’re not going to come to you with problems — they’re just going to leave. A trusting relationship is one built on communication. A great leader knows how to communicate effectively, and listens to feedback
Kim Scott’s Radical Candor is a great primer on this. Her whole thesis is that you need to develop personal relationships with your employees and team members, so you can give negative feedback when necessary that is specific and productive. Doing so means your communication with your staff, and their employee experience, isn’t only made up of corrections and negativity.
Having these relationships with your employees will also let you give immediate positive feedback in a way your team members appreciate.
A trusting relationship with your team not only creates a better workplace, it also creates a stronger organization where people will want to stay. This is important given that employee churn is expensive — to your team’s morale and your bottom line. Building strong relationships with employees is critical for employee retention and by proxy your team’s success.
Resolving Workplace Conflicts
Conflict resolution in the workplace has always been a manager’s job, be it conflict between team members or between a senior and their subordinate. Alison Green’s blog, Ask a Manager has endless examples of work conflicts you’d never imagine happening in real life, and it’s your job to be the frontline here.
The know-how to relate to others, negotiate, resolve workplace tension, and be patient in high-pressure situations are all skills that can help resolve tense situations.
Empathy Towards Your Team
I frequently say a cheesy thing to everyone I work with (and also to myself on those rough days): There’s always going to be more work, but there’s only one you.
It seems like it should be unnecessary to say this, but your employees are people with lives and have things going on beyond work. Watch out for signs of burnout. When employees are going through a tough time in their personal or professional lives, it is the management’s job to make balancing their personal and work demands as easy as possible.
This is not to say your employees need to share personal information with you that they don’t want to share. ”I need to take today off” is a full sentence — no explanation required. But part of your role as a manager is helping your team manage their workload, even when some of the pressure might not be coming from work.
Even when you’re leading it, you’re still one part of a team. If you’ve hired strong team members, you can do your best work by trusting them to do their best work and providing them with the support, learning experiences, and resources they need to succeed. If, on the other hand, your office needs holiday coverage and management never helps cover the gaps, you’re making it very clear that you’re not on the same team.
Jack Welsch prioritizes generous leaders. These are the leaders who share credit and shine a light on their team members. He also insists on direct communication so everyone can buy into an idea or a project. Just as you want to see how your work is part of a bigger picture and want to grow, so does your team.
What Are the Roles of People Managers?
The job of a good people manager is to recognize the unique characteristics of all your team members, and then harness those skills to the organization’s benefit. The end goal here is to use everyone’s strengths to improve individual performance. Empowering each member of the team to optimize their contribution to the end goal.
This requires knowing who to give certain tasks to, who works better in a team, and who works best when they’re left alone. Great leadership is also about building people, which means the assignment of those tasks must align with the employee’s own career goals. Kim Scott points out that some team members want to develop but some might not — and that can change over time, so it’s important to check in regularly with your team about their career goals.
Besides managing the workforce you have, effective people management requires the ability to build out the team with new skills and new hires. Inevitably, it also involves dealing with employees leaving, getting demotivated, and losing focus.
Luckily there are tools to help with this humongous task.
The People Manager’s Toolkit
Talent management software
A lot of organizations use a talent management system to help build out and manage their company’s workforce. Besides hiring, onboarding, and offboarding, a talent management system can help with performance assessments, recruitment, and training and development of staff.
Performance management systems
A performance management system can be purely a method of results measuring, a holistic part of your company’s human resource management, or a software solution. Regardless of what you implement, monitoring performance is necessary to identify areas within your team for growth. It is also an important indicator of when recognition and rewards for hard work are due.
To be as efficient as possible, you want your team to communicate and collaborate all the time. Especially with remote work, the danger of a team member working in isolation is that they are doing unnecessary, off-target, or double work. However, the real benefit of collaboration is that it drives innovation — the key component of effective problem-solving. Collaborative software and work-sharing tools are essential to modern project work and overall company functionality.
Workforce management software
People management requires a lot of administration, like shift scheduling, task management, attendance management, etc. These repetitive responsibilities are tedious, time-consuming, and take you away from the higher-level goal of the company. Workforce management software relieves you of these tasks and puts your attention back where it should be — driving results within your team.
The Best Books on Managing People
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable – Patrick Lencioni
This book is a classic in the genre and a really important read. People management takes more than just understanding what people need — it also asks you to understand the relationship your team has with each other and to foster the growth and unity of the team as a whole. You can read the whole thing if you love a business book allegory (which I do!), or just the end with the takeaways if you don’t.
If you want to understand the things that might risk your team’s unity and cohesiveness, this book is for you.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H. Pink
When you’re trying to manage people who are all complex individuals with their own wants and needs, it’s easy to agree with Daniel H. Pink’s philosophy that you need more than just the carrot and stick approach.
This book is for anyone who wants to understand what drives people forward and what motivates them, something that every effective people manager needs to know about.
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity – Kim Scott
This is a personal favorite of mine (and one I reference above). Kim Scott writes about the tricky issues around giving candid, accurate feedback.
When it comes to giving bad news, negative feedback, and giving orders that not everyone will like, how do you keep your team’s trust and respect? Her focus on being a human being to your employees and seeing them as human beings as well is very critical to a successful working relationship.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Wilikins and Leif Babin
Ok, realistically, is managing a paper sales team the same as being a Navy SEAL under enemy fire? No. But the focus on communication, clarity, and the fact that you are responsible for understanding and explaining what is going on at work to your team should be core for any manager.
My Conclusion on People Management Skills
Some might say that people management skills are naturally acquired over time. After all, every manager you’ve ever had with more than a few years of experience was great at it, right?
The results of people management are not as clear as generating a piece of work as an individual contributor. If you do a bad job people will be justifiably unhappy, and if you do a good job people generally won’t attribute it to your work, but instead to your team — which is where the praise should go!
A critical mistake people make is going into management because it’s the easiest way to get a promotion, or because they want to be in charge of other people. If the idea of being a people manager doesn’t stress you out, you are absolutely doing it wrong. Take the time to purposefully invest in and build your leadership acumen, and take charge of your professional development, and you will see quicker results from yourself and your team.