Managing people today is harder than it’s ever been, and not just because of Covid. And what makes it so hard is often the “people stuff.”

Having worked in the leadership and management development space for two decades when I founded Lead Belay, I knew that managing people was hard, but I wanted to know more about what specifically is difficult and how much so, right now. With managers facing new and different challenges than any previous generation of managers, it took setting aside a lot of biases and assumptions, and having direct conversations with a few hundred people. This is what we learned: Managing people is harder today than ever before for two key reasons. 

Jobs are changing faster than ever.

New jobs and industries are being created faster than workers from previous generations could get promoted. This means people are constantly leaving and changing not only jobs, but entire careers. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman wrote a paper about the life cycle of a team -- from forming, to storming, to norming, to performing. Fifty years later, it can be incredibly difficult for a team to reach just the storming phase when the teams are continually forming and reforming as members come and go.

Team priorities are changing faster than ever.

People in teams are changing (see #1, above) and the team charter is much more likely to change, and change quickly. Teams are either driving innovation, or responding to innovation. So even when a team gets past forming and into storming, it can be hard to adopt norms and truly perform when team operations are always shifting. 

These factors combine to make it a freaking hard world to manage in. People are turning over, the function of your team is changing, all while you’re trying to lead innovation, rather than just respond to it. 

As the journalist Graeme Wood tweeted, “Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again." We’d add, “Managing people has never been this hard before, and it will never be this easy again.”

So while it’s not a new requirement for leaders to operate with some level of ambiguity (with the ability to respond quickly and adapt while also working to be ahead of change), the margin for error has collapsed dramatically. With the rise of Agile teams and “failing fast,” managers are required to be all those things in a pressure-cooker environment where they are still, first and foremost, required to deal with human beings.

It’s no easy task. (Understatement) But even with all of these relatively new factors, our research into what managers struggle with most revealed they struggle most with classic issues managers have been challenged by since before the industrial revolutions.

What our research shows

Our study zeroed in on six challenges managers are facing today. And, while we’ll have more time to dive into them in future posts, here are some highlights of each:

Giving Direct Reports Honest, Helpful Feedback. Similar in some ways to having difficult and direct conversations, giving effective feedback first requires managers to give feedback based on the strengths of their team members, not their own. Helpful feedback is timely, actionable, and specific. Positive feedback should be delivered more often, and also publicly, while constructive feedback should be handled in private. Effective leaders also welcome feedback about themselves.

Aligning Team Goals. One of the biggest challenges for new managers is understanding their company or boss’s objectives and reaching agreement on priorities. As the saying goes, “If everything is important, nothing is”. Effective managers understand the broader strategy and can see the entire picture, while they protect their teams from the whims and wishes of people outside it.

Holding Team Members Accountable. Different companies have their rhythms and routines (McDonald’s) or mechanisms (Amazon) for accountability. No matter what it’s called, successful managers develop a system to hold others accountable. Whether it’s daily stand-up meetings, a task management system, or something else, an effective process makes it easy for managers to know what’s getting done, what’s not, and why. And, a successful accountability process is predicated on a manager’s ability to make clear and reasonable requests.

Building a Team That’s Cohesive and Inclusive. Here’s where humanity really comes into play. Teams need to feel psychologically safe, have agency to speak up, ask questions, and voice objections when necessary. Great managers understand their team members as individuals and align team members’ personal goals with the rest of the team. They ensure strong, positive relationships with their team and foster them between team members, which creates a culture of respect and trust.

Having Difficult and Direct Conversations. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor is a popular and very effective framework for this concept. Today’s managers need to demonstrate care while challenging others directly in order to be effective. One without the other, or worse, the absence of both, can have disastrous effects—in managers and their ability to lead their teams.

Developing Members of the Team. This often boils down to just taking the time and having routines. Routines like regular one-to-one conversations with team members that focus on the team member’s goals and objectives, not their own. If team members can talk with you about where they want their career to evolve beyond your team or even your organization, you’ve actually got something here. 

Paradoxically, holding your talent with an open hand will keep your high-performers around longer than leading with an iron fist. (Plus, it’s the right thing to do.)

Maybe some of these challenges rang true to you as a manager. Maybe all of them did. Maybe you see these challenges for other people within your organization. But no matter what, there’s no reason to put off seeking guidance and help to work through them.

At Lead Belay, our Emerging Leader Ascent covers all of these challenges, and so much more, and we’re just gearing up for 2022. Want to be a part of it? Join us today.

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