What kind of training do managers need right now?

Manager development 'super-hero' concept

What kind of training do managers need right now?

The last decade has seen huge changes in the workplace, which has been affecting the role of managers. But nothing could have prepared them for the seismic changes brought about by COVID-19 this year. And the truth is, many are struggling as they grapple with challenges like managing remote teams.

This is calling for some new and different skills. And we must prioritise greater support to managers, given their importance to employee engagement and organisational performance.

We look at how managers are doing currently, common manager development areas and where to focus training and resources to help develop managers.

The task at hand

With the multiple generations now making up the workplace, managers may have teams of individuals with very different expectations and needs. Add to this, working style preferences, openness to change, and varying levels of resilience during a global health crisis. It’s clear that managers are currently being tested as never before.

Managers’ own behaviours are one of the most influential factors in determining the success of a team. Not only can they have a marked impact on performance, employee wellbeing and team dynamics but also on retention (we all know the mantra “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”).

In light of all this, we reflected on trends data we’ve collected since 2013 and asked how has managers’ performance changed with the evolving workplace? How different are employees’ perceptions of their manager? Is this due to changing expectations or other factors? How different could this picture be in the coming weeks and months?

Then and now

To identify skills gaps, we look to employee survey results, aggregate trends across our 360 degree feedback data, and our extensive benchmark database. Our benchmark provides insights and historical comparisons that truly highlight how managers’ roles are changing.

The key trends we have identified using our data and third party research concern four broad areas:

  1. Building trust and communicating well
  2. Feedback (giving and getting)
  3. Resilience and employee wellbeing
  4. Managing performance and goal-setting.


1. Building trust and communicating well

Many changes in this respect have been employee-led and are rooted in adapting ways of working to suit differing needs. This is reflected in the data, which shows managers being steadily more open to employees’ ideas and suggestions for change.

manager development report bar chart

One such example is likely the uplift in remote and flexible working options being introduced in many organisations in response to employees’ circumstances, care responsibilities or preferences.

But for managers this naturally poses new challenges. These include leading a team from afar, maintaining communication, and ensuring their remote/dispersed teams are still collaborating around shared objectives. It’s perhaps not surprising then to see a drop off in how well employees feel their manager communicates with them (79% in 2019 vs 84% favourable in 2013).

Elsewhere there’s been a shift in leadership styles with traditional ‘command and control’ becoming less prevalent (or effective). This has been replaced by a transformational, more collaborative and empowering style. Accounting for the importance of trust and autonomy, this is something we reflected in our surveys with the introduction of two empowerment questions:

“Given organisations are undergoing unprecedented change and uncertainty, it’s crucial managers maintain open lines of communication. They must also put their trust in teams to work in these new ways. Also, remember that an effective manager needs to be able to both listen and speak well. Consider how your managers currently communicate with their teams and in what forums.”

2. Feedback

Further shifts are seen for manager behaviour is in determining the feedback culture within their teams. As well as providing timely, constructive feedback, managers must also ensure they’re open to receiving upwards feedback from direct reports.

Furthermore, managers must also be mindful of their delivery styles and adapt how they give feedback based on individuals’ needs and preferences.

The data below shows that it is an area where managers seem to be improving, certainly in terms of their encouraging feedback upwards.

“This is a specialist area for us and we have implemented feedback training for managers across many of our clients aimed at increasing the frequency and quality of feedback conversations they have, and showing them the value of upwards feedback and how to encourage it.”

manager development report historical stats

3. Resilience and employee wellbeing

The role managers play in maintaining and promoting employee wellbeing within organisations has changed. Indeed our benchmark trend data reveals:

manager development report pyramids

“Today’s managers must recognise their responsibility for supporting team members, they need to acknowledge that they have a direct impact on employees’ stress levels and understand that resilience can be developed.”

In the face of such adversity as the pandemic, this pastoral responsibility from managers has never been more pressing. This is the ultimate ‘acid test’ of resilience and coping under stressful conditions.

What we need is for managers to step up and consider ways they can provide reassurance and emotional support to their team, maintain morale and, as much as possible, promote employee health – albeit from a distance in most cases. It’s heartening then that our benchmark shows that 91% of employees report that their manager speaks up and challenges the norm in order to do the right thing.

Watch our video here as ETS Principal Consultant Deborah Kuness talks more about building resilience in leaders:

4. Managing performance and goal-setting

A key aspect of being an effective people manager is driving high levels of performance from one’s team. A good manager will know what the company wants to achieve and be able to create and communicate SMART goals that support this, and that employees sign up to. This is important in providing employees with clarity in their every-day tasks, and allowing them to see how their work is feeding into the ‘bigger picture’.

Managers must tap into what motivates team members when setting out goals. Typical drivers can be intrinsic or extrinsic and include things such as the desire for more money, recognition, autonomy, challenge or variety. Once they know the drivers most relevant for each person, they’re able to motivate more effectively. And another key part of their role is dealing with under-performance as, left unchecked, this can have a damaging effect on a team.

What we know is that poor performance management processes and infective appraisals remains a common challenge; according to Gartner, 81% of HR leaders are making changes to performance management. And that the cost of ‘poor management’ in the UK alone is some £84 billion (according to the OECD).

“There’s no doubt that equipping managers with some of the skills we’ve already touched on above (feedback, communications skills) will help no end. But organisations too must support in providing the frameworks and tools, if necessary, to help them manage more effectively.”

Get more help for managers in our guide on how to set individual performance objectives.

And finally, some tips for leading remote teams

So, with remote working remaining ‘the norm’ for so many of us, what can managers do to navigate and more effectively lead others?

Harness tech for good!

Many of us have been forced to embrace Teams and Zoom in a big way this year, but there’s no doubt that these platforms bring different challenges for managers.

Dr Karen Sobel Lojeski describes ‘virtual distancing’ as a sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up if we become over-reliant on technology. A sense of disconnection can undermine trust, engagement and goal clarity. It’s harder to pick up on non-verbal cues that are essential to understanding people’s intentions or feelings. In short, you lose the ability to build and maintain meaningful working relationships with people.

Don’t worry though – there are ways around this. Several studies suggest finding ways to reduce ‘virtual distance’ by helping team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one other and the business:

  • One found that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the frequency of face-to-face exchanges among team members.
  • Another found that 50% of positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to informal interactions outside of the workplace.

So, while it’s no longer an option to grab a coffee, the same conferencing platforms can be used to foster those informal interactions. Likewise, a daily ‘Virtual tea break’ can maintain that oh-so-important social interaction (we’re already using this one ourselves!).

Also, consider setting some team ground rules for how to use technology. In principle, the more similar you can make your virtual meetings to face-to-face ones, the better!

Balance freedom with accountability

Good leadership is essential in any high performing team (remote or otherwise). But leaders new to remote working may have found it tricky to fully trust what their teams are doing when they can’t see it. A mindset shift is needed.

Remote leaders must focus on the objectives and outputs. Set clear expectations up front, communicate who is accountable for what, give people the freedom and flexibility to achieve those expectations in their own way, monitor progress without micromanaging and hold them to account for outputs without blame or criticism.

And above all, remember that the basic principles of good leadership remain the same, whether working virtually or face-to-face.

Establish new rules of engagement

Don’t go straight to ‘task mode’ when speaking with your team. It’s really common for remote teams to become transactional in their communication, focussing on the ‘what’ and the task without considering the ‘how’ and the relationship. Remember that trust, collaboration and strong relationships are cornerstones of good teamwork.

Managers should also be asking what each team member needs in order to be at their best. Listen to how people are feeling and what’s on their mind. Try tuning in to these things by asking effective open questions, really listening and creating an environment in which people feel emotionally safe to have these open, honest conversations on a regular basis. This will give clarity on how managers can best support virtual colleagues to get the desired outcomes.

Keith McGrane

Keith has a strong track record in driving business change and has specialist knowledge of leadership, team and talent development through training and coaching. Connect with Keith on LinkedIn