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HR lacks confidence in managers’ conversation skills

HR leaders lack confidence in managers’ ability to talk informally with employees about subjects like wellbeing or flexible working arrangements, according to new research.

Nine in 10 (90%) of the HR leaders interviewed for the report by software provider OpenBlend said they had low (44%) or medium (46%) confidence in their managers' ability to have informal conversations.

This confidence was stronger when managers were dealing with formal issues like objective-setting or development when frameworks are often provided, jumping to 60% of leaders having a medium level of confidence and 18% having high confidence. 

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Anna Rasmussen, founder and CEO of OpenBlend, told HR magazine that the shift in employees’ expectations from their managers towards informal pastoral care has led many managers outside their comfort zone.

She said: “To ensure effective employee conversations, managers are now having to move beyond objectives and performance ratings to discuss wellbeing, motivation, and of course, employee-specific working arrangements."

The research, which involved in-depth interviews of 20 HR leaders in the first quarter of 2022, also revealed a strong correlation between managers’ confidence and capacity to perform well.

Organisations with the lowest 'performance enablement' score were split 51%/49% between medium and low confidence in managers' ability to have useful conversations, compared to high scoring companies, where 29% had a high level of confidence in their managers, and just 26% had low confidence in their managers.

Rasmussen added: “My hope is that organisations recognise the importance of supporting managers because we all need support when learning a new skill set.”

This obligation does not just sit with HR, she said.

“The tone, ethos, and role modelling that senior leaders display is critical. Living and breathing the mindset that there is no one-size-fits-all, that every employee is different and has a unique situation is a key part of the solution.”

Shakil Butt, founder of consultancy HR Hero for Hire, said that the nature of managers’ relationships with their team can vary widely, and teams need to find what works best for them.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “It’s not one or the other, as both have a place.

“I used to coach managers in understanding they can be friendly with their team to win trust and rapport. They are not friends per se - but colleagues working towards specific outcomes and objectives.”

Butt added that many managers get promoted into their roles for their technical skills, rather than their people skills.

“This presents a great opportunity for HR to upskill managers, supporting them with soft skills such as empathy, communication and interpersonal relationships, whilst also not shying away from tackling feedback and having formal conversations as and when required. 

“To build those essential skills [... means] spending time with each member of the team and treating them as individuals to better understand what works best for both of you.”