· Comment

Help 'accidental managers' develop key people skills

Ashley-Timms: "Helping managers to actively listen to employees is key for them to foster more authentic connection" -

How can HR help accidental managers develop the skills to become effective 'people' people, and handle the human side of the role?

The Chartered Management Institute estimates that between 70% and 80% of managers in the UK are ‘accidental managers’: good employees, having been promoted into their management position because of their technical strengths, rather than their recognised people-development abilities.

These managers lack the vital skills needed to deal with the people side of leadership, in turn having a negative impact on employee productivity and engagement across the organisation.

Indeed, according to Gallup, employee engagement levels everywhere are shockingly low: Europe has the lowest regional percentage of engaged employees, at 13%, with the UK posting a miserable 10%. For many organisations, developing coaching skills has become a popular response to try to stem declining employee engagement and provide accidental managers with the necessary tools to connect with their employees. Creating a 'coaching culture' in which people are supported would result in improved performance and productivity, or so the thinking goes.

How to help accidental managers

However, after over 20 years of investment in this type of training we have yet to record meaningful cultural or measurable organisational outcomes. Many HR professionals we’ve spoken to over the years have bemoaned the fact that despite having run extensive 'manager as coach', 'leader as coach' and 'coaching conversations' type programmes, they were frustrated that leaders and managers often failed to put those skills to good use.

So, how can HR help accidental managers develop the skills to become effective 'people' people and handle the human side of their new role? The answer is less about teaching them to run coaching sessions and more about focusing on the vital day-to-day behaviours that will help them to develop a permanent coaching mindset.

Encourage more powerful questions

Accidental managers must learn to avoid the typical command-and-control approach of providing solutions by telling or advising employees on what to do when they come to them with problems. Rather than fixing and solving, they must practise an enquiry-led approach by learning how to ask more powerful and stimulating questions that generate a positive outcome.

Two tricks to ensure middle managers are empowered, not endangered

Questions are key not only to increasing performance and engagement, but also for fostering an authentic connection with staff. For example, HR can begin by encouraging managers to stop asking ‘why’ questions all the time and instead start asking more ‘what’ questions. Why-based questions can feel personal, like the employee is to blame somehow or that they’re being criticised, which can lead to defensiveness. Replacing why…? with what…? removes the unintended personal inference from a question and focuses on the situation itself. The employee is then more likely to be open to exploring specifics rather than feeling that they need to justify or defend their actions.

Encourage active listening

Helping managers to actively listen to an employee’s response to their questions is key for them to foster more authentic connection and engagement. HR can encourage managers to resist the temptation to interrupt with their own input or launch into a series of further questions to learn more about the situation, and instead develop the skill of demonstrating their acknowledgement of their answer. For example, when a manager is listening to a challenge an employee is facing, help them to form more empathetic responses like 'I hear what you’re saying. That sounds really difficult. I absolutely get it. Let’s work together on this. May I ask you another question?' This will help the employee to open up to their questions and ease into a conversation that’s more natural. The manager will in turn foster trust in that moment and develop a more human connection.

Bridging the gap from manager to people manager

Role model this behaviour

Asking more powerful questions and actively listening to help others find solutions may not come naturally to accidental managers accustomed to excelling at the technical side of their previous role. HR professionals and teams can help by role modelling this behaviour by pausing, asking more questions and spending more time reflecting. Managers are likely to mirror this behaviour and the positive results that follow. This is a vital step towards humanising the whole organisation, and in turn will help to cultivate more trust, engagement and higher levels of performance.

By Laura Ashley-Timms is the COO of performance consultancy Notion