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How to improve management skills (in four smart steps)

a manager with long pink hair is explaining how to improve management skills to her coworkers

Stats on how to improve management skills

  • Only 34% of US workers say they're 'engaged' in their work, but this is one of the highest levels it's historically been. [1]
  • Only 35% of managers themselves are engaged in their work - a concerning statistic when they have such responsibility for driving employee engagement. [2]

  • More than 90% of business leaders say that promoting wellness can affect employee productivity and performance. [3]
  • 57% of business leaders say their organizations viewed employee health programs as an 'investment in human capital'. [3]
  • One quarter of British workers are afraid to ask their manager to take the time off that they're owed. [4]

According to the World Economic Forum, people management is one of the top ten skills needed to thrive in the 'fourth industrial revolution'.

We seem to be at a turning point in history; not just the coming global post-pandemic recovery, but a world increasingly reliant on algorithms, robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Much of the world's economic activity operates within the realm of 'mystical' technology - things so complex and clever that they might as well be magic. It's easy to assume the future of work is almost completely digital.

But humans aren't going away anytime soon. People need to design, manufacture, operate and maintain these machines. And the global service industry makes up an increasing proportion of wealthy countries' GDP, accounting for more than 70% of employment in OECD countries.

That's an awful lot of people that need managing. And despite tech's endless march towards optimization and efficiency, people are the ones that get deals done, think creatively and make things happen.

Great people management is the key to empowering workers. It's the thing that aligns your company's big goals and visions with its day-to-day achievements. It increases your company resilience and agility in the face of shifting global markets. Badly-managed companies simply don't perform to their financial potential - which is why it's worth getting good at.

You don't have to have years of experience or go on expensive courses to be able to manage well. You just have to focus on a few key areas and do them well.

With that in mind, here are some of our favorite strategies on how to improve management skills.

Table of contents
How to improve your management skills

How to improve your management skills

1) Make sure everyone knows why they're doing things

Nobody likes doing work that doesn't matter. And sometimes, even when it does matter, it's hard to see why.

So one of the most effective things a manager can do is link the what to the why - getting employees to deeply understand the connection between the efforts they put in every workday and the results they produce. Some vocations, like medical care or manufacturing, have tangible outcomes that are immediately visible; a patient that recovers, or the creation of a useful object, for example. These can be easier to link with motivation because managers don't need to explain the impact of the work that's done.

But in other cases, a more proactive approach is what works best.

It really comes down to getting people to understand core culture - the deepest, most important values the organization holds. It's what gets everyone up in the morning, excited for the day ahead. It could be a sense of honor, a commitment to creativity, a dedication to social impact, or the ability to make the lives of thousands of customers easier and more enjoyable.

These might be obvious to you as a manager, but if your team is only vaguely aware of it through mission statements and other surface-level communication, it's not going to really spark their drive to perform.

This essential core culture gets into the heads of employees through two methods: training, and exposure. The first involves direct communication, which involves documentation, messaging, and conversation. The second is indirect - it's the behavior that reflects those values, which permeates through the company over time. In short, if you act in accordance with company values, others will too.

2) Keep your people healthy

This doesn't mean you have to keep tabs on your team's blood pressure or cholesterol levels. But it does mean taking a certain level of responsibility for their wellbeing at work - both because it's the moral thing to do, and for the fact that wellbeing is so intrinsically tied to productivity.

One of the more alarming stats above is that of UK workers being afraid to ask their managers for the time off that they're owed. This points to a real cultural problem. That fear doesn't come from nowhere - it'll be cultivated by negative experiences in the past. Why are managers dissuading time off that people are perfectly entitled to? 

It's only a reasonable response when looking at busy Christmas periods when a large portion of the workforce want to take leave at the same time, which is always a delicate balance. But taking time off to rest is a crucial part of preventing burnout and improving performance, and denying it under regular circumstances isn't good for the health of your employees or that of your company's performance.

Healthy employees turn up for work much more often, too - in fact, absenteeism from workplace stress costs US companies $300bn per year. Overworking team members might cause short-term gains, but if you're burning them out, is it really worth it?

One critical part of keeping your team sane and healthy is to foster an environment of psychological safety. This involves paying attention to everyone's mental health, interpersonal connections, and ability to speak freely without fear within the workplace to ensure they're not in a state of anxious rumination all the time. Managers that promote these as a priority will end up with happier, more productive employees.

3) Operationalize your decision-making

People in positions of responsibility are decision-making machines. They have to take in large amounts of data and quickly use their unique insight to steer people in the right direction.

Decision-making is one of the most important skills you can have in business, but it's a rarely cultivated one. You can take courses to learn how to communicate better, or how to improve your interpersonal skills, but the meta-discipline of making decisions isn't a topic you'd typically try to tackle.

One way to get better at it is to first think about your thinking:

  • How do you prioritize two competing concerns?
  • How do you properly evaluate possibilities?
  • What is your decision making style
  • How much of your decisions are based on gut feel or intuition?

Understanding the processes your brain goes through when faced with challenges - your 'mental models' - will help you be much more rational and less prone to emotionally overreacting.

As explained by Farnam Street:

"There is no class called “decision making.” Making better decisions isn’t one skill but rather a series of tools and frameworks. What distinguishes consistently good decision makers from poor ones is a series of diverse mental frameworks and tools (as well as relevant specific information)."

You could try learning from others who you admire, whether that's through questioning people you know, tweeting people you don't know, or reading biographies of high achievers both in and outside of your domain.

They might not be able to explain the exact mental model they used to navigate through a critical point, but they can show their thinking. And that's something you can really benefit from.

With enough experience, making smart decisions based on logical frameworks becomes second nature. The result - employees that don't second-guess your decisions, and strategic moves that have a much better likelihood of success.

4) Make time for learning

No matter how high you climb in the corporate hierarchy, or how successful your own business is, thinking you know everything is a recipe for complacency. There are always things you can learn, and even if you're a top-level manager, you can always learn more about how to manage.

Many managers would say they already do this, or that they're open-minded enough to change direction when challenged. But it's not as common that they actually formalize the act of learning.

Performance coaching is one way of going about it, which certainly isn't unheard of in corporate circles. A coach that aligns nicely to your personality can give you a major boost in focus, clarity of purpose and overall performance, but they can also shed light on tricky management issues that might not be appropriate to share with your colleagues or subordinates. They can offer insight on techniques or thought patterns you didn't realize you had, and help you address blind spots in your people management or conflict resolution methods.

You could also go even more formal and sign up for a management training course. Most universities with business schools offer short courses in specific areas of management, led by professors and industry professionals, as well as longer part-time or full-time qualifications. If you've not considered it before, maybe it's time to see what's on offer nearby - most mid-size cities will have something on offer for management professionals looking for career development. If that doesn't work, you're sure to find something online.

Think of it like going to the gym, or having a regular therapy session. Learning can be more of an act of maintenance than training, and might refresh the knowledge that might have gotten a bit rusty. But you might also gain a serious upgrade to your skillset that helps you and your team realize your potential and climb up to the next level.

Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can help to quickly improve management skills and wellness on your team.

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