People management is a skill that I don’t think you ever truly master—you just keep learning. I’ve spent five years working in Asia with team members from diverse backgrounds, and the learning curve in this region is steeper than anywhere else in the world. As a result, it is also hugely rewarding. So how do you be the best people manager you can be? The truth is, it’s hard.
On average, you spend around one-third of your total life at work. It thus follows that work relationships rank high on your list of people you spend time with. Like any of your most important relationships, the key to success is trust.
As managers, at times we can focus too much on how to structure a difficult conversation, while what we should be addressing is the underlying reason making it difficult in the first place. Often, it’s due to a lack of trust.
How then, do you as a manager, build trust? Here are five ways that I have found to work:
#1 Understand purpose
Why does your team come to work? What has their journey to this point been? Why did they leave their last role? What are they trying to achieve? These are critical pieces of information for you to know about each and every one of your team members.
For those who have moved cities or even continents to be here, this is even more critical; our journeys make us who we are and help to contextualise the ‘why’. This context shapes our behaviours and choices, and it also gives a great understanding of what motivates your team members—money, position, learning, work-life balance—all of which are perfectly valid.
#2 Empathy and active listening
Understanding the ‘why’ enables you to build empathy. It also forces you to listen. It is impossible for anyone other than your team member to tell you what really motivates them, and luckily, you will often find that people like to talk about themselves.
Meet with them at least once every six months to assess their career, and allow them to do 80-90% of the talking. Probe for deeper information on the ‘why’.
Challenge them if they’re too focused on one route, and encourage a longer-term view—the ideal ‘plan’ window is between two and four years—but also reassure them that you are there to help shape a plan if it’s not already in place.
Genuinely do what is best for them regardless of how it affects you as an individual.
#3 Authentic honesty
Brutal honesty can often be useful, but can also be damaging if delivered recklessly. Brutal authenticity never fails. Regular feedback is critical. Be aware of different cultures and backgrounds when considering how to deliver your feedback. Some may perceive direct criticism as unnecessarily embarrassing.
Choose the setting that makes both of you comfortable as this will help feedback to resonate. Be mindful of conducting feedback sessions in an unnatural environment for you; this adds complexity to what might already be a challenging conversation.
As managers we need to be rounded and adaptable; if you are challenged in a certain type of conversation, you should focus on building up your confidence. Entering a conversation with a fixed idea of how you want it to go will more often than not lead to a confused outcome and break down trust with your team.
#4 Be vulnerable
The managers I have worked with have been honest with me about their own feelings, and whether they feel positively or negatively about what they can and cannot control. At times, this has put them in a vulnerable position. Your team members want to feel like they’re part of just that, a team. They don’t want to feel like the team is just a manager and a group of direct reports.
The way we deal with mistakes and errors varies wildly across cultures, but enabling your team to be comfortable with taking risks and looking at their own behaviours first if things go wrong will drive the right business outcomes. Leading by example will help to create values that transcend most cultural barriers, at least within your immediate team.
#5 Embrace new perspectives and experiences
Be secure and encourage your teams to think bigger and beyond what they can see. Be okay if that involves thinking about an opportunity beyond your organisation or outside the industry. If you truly put your team first as a manager, then this is where your role moves from line manager to career mentor and coach. Actively encourage them to get a balanced industry view with perspectives beyond your company; it will set them up for long-term success.