Five Skills All Managers Need

We all have jobs as managers, and the manner in which we approach our role is often defined by our personal experience of having been managed. The truth is we intuitively know good management when we experience it: most of all, expectations are made clear, we know how our responsibilities contribute to the larger goal, and we feel supported by those around us.

If we want to grow as managers, however, intuition and personal experience will only get us so far. To improve, we have to begin with an understanding of what good management looks like. Without such shared language and conceptual understanding, it’s difficult to develop one’s own management capabilities and next to impossible to systematically support the growth of others on our team.

Five Essential Management Skills

Our research and experience as team performance coaches have confirmed there are five skills that are key to successful management, but that individuals across organizations and industries typically have yet to master. At Outside Angle, we’ve built our manager support and development practice around these five skills.

1. Trust and Confidence

First and foremost, managers need to establish a shared belief both across the team and within themselves in their own competence, reliability, and motive. Put simply, this means doing what you say you will do. It is about being dependable and consistent. It means that you are championing authenticity, empathy, and humanity. It means supporting your direct reports even when they make mistakes AND owning your mistakes when you make them.

Psychologists have long identified the desire to feel connected to others as a basic human need and that interpersonal relationships have a significant impact on our mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk (Umberson & Montez, 2010). Studies have also shown that our physiological systems are highly responsive to positive social interactions. When we have positive relationships at work and are surrounded by people we can trust and rely on, our brain releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone associated with credibility, and increases our motivation to help others in the workplace. When work relationships are characterized by cooperation, trust and fairness, the brain\’s reward centers are activated, encouraging future interactions, thereby fostering trust, respect and confidence among the employees and ultimately, creating an environment and culture where employees are invested in and cultivate success in themselves and each other.

Simply put, trust matters beyond measure. To go deeper on trust, check out what Outside Angle CEO Sarah Silverman has written about self-trust and interpersonal trust.

2. Delegation

Delegation is one of the most misunderstood responsibilities of management. Task assignment is the role of a project manager, but critical thinking assignment is the role of a people manager.

In cases where managers may lead their own projects, it may be less about delegation to direct reports and more about enablement across the team. Effective managers empower the team to take ownership of their work, problem solve, challenge themselves and facilitate strong relationships with their clients. Some direct reports may feel quite capable of doing this. But what about those that don’t? An effective manager finds ways to enable them to recognize their own agency to change and tackle things themselves. Sometimes it is just about giving them permission to do so. And for others, it may be linked to how the manager coaches and develops them in regular 1:1s. One of the best methods we’ve seen for enablement is the use of questions to amplify and cultivate team members’ belief and confidence to act without seeking permission first.

3. Coaching and Development

Only with firm basis in trust and confidence can managers progress toward more complete skills work. When managers understand and enable their people, they eventually discover the domains where people can improve and grow. Managers must acquire the skills involved in helping others grow and improve their practice. This requires managers to provide timely and constructive feedback, serve as thought partners, and adapt coaching to individual strengths and preferred means of recognition. At its very heart, coaching is about asking really great questions that are focused on raising the bar for day-to-day performance improvements. The best managers hold a core belief that everyone has the answers they need inside of them. The manager’s role is to help others uncover the answers within themselves.

4. Hard Conversations

Effective managers turn toward, not away from, tough conversations when they are needed to reach the goals of the organization. It takes practice (and courage) to master this skill; initiating and leading tough conversations to the desired outcome for the organization while treating everyone involved with dignity and respect. (Read more on evaluating one’s own roadblocks to engaging in hard conversations here.)

Hard conversations are ones where there is a high potential to become emotional and when there are strong differences of opinion. These are often the conversations that are needed but we find ourselves making excuses like, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” “The problem will fix itself; just give it time,” or “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.” Hard conversations are a necessary part of working well with others. Reaching an understanding is often the first step toward creating a better work environment.

5. Advocacy

The fifth skill managers need is advocacy, which means they can represent the needs of their team and direct reports to others in the organization. They look out for members of their team individually and as a group, while keeping the overall goals of the organization in focus. For some leaders, advocating for their team means highlighting team successes and sharing positive feedback with upper management, while for others, it means seeking career growth opportunities for high performers. Great leaders not only deeply care for their people, their people know deeply that their leader cares for them. By communicating, praising, stretching, and creating safety, the team is encouraged and cared for by their manager’s advocacy.

How Could the Managers in Your Organization Level Up?

How do the managers you know perform relative to these five essential management skills? What would be your own self-assessment? How might you and others on your team benefit from development across the five domains? In our coaching practice, we’ve found that all managers—even experienced managers—have weaknesses and vulnerabilities across these domains that can benefit from on-the-job practice and training.

Following a recent series of coaching sessions led by Outside Angle, one manager participant shared this takeaway: “I especially appreciated the advice around listening to direct reports and asking questions rather than trying to problem solve immediately. My tendency is to try to help my direct reports solve their problems or provide suggestions so that I feel like I’m helping them, and this was great advice for me to check my initial gut reaction to hearing a problem.”

Investing in managers and their development is a worthwhile investment for any organization, especially those navigating change. You’ve heard culture eats strategy for breakfast, well then consider how effective management can eat change for lunch.