Throughout my HR career, arguably the skill I’ve been asked to provide most training in is the art of people management. So, here’s a possibly controversial view. I don’t actually believe you can teach the ability to manage people. Essentially, you either have it, or you don’t.
Some of you reading this may disagree with that stance. After all, isn’t people management a skill which can be taught like any other? We teach people how to program; how to build; how to write. Does it not stand that we should also be able to teach people management?
People management skills can’t be taught
My personal view is that we can’t – at least, not beyond an extent. We can, of course, work with our people managers to help them to become better. We can refine traits and we can provide toolkits designed to support them. But, fundamentally, I believe that someone is either able to manage people, or they are not.
Why do I believe that? Well, in the same way that some of us are natural athletes, some of us are naturally adept at speaking to, understanding, and developing people. I could probably be taught to run a marathon. It is highly unlikely that I could ever be taught to run a marathon well.
Following that thought process then, have I not just contradicted myself? So people management skills can be taught after all?
A frighteningly complex skillset
No, I don’t think they can. Because, unlike marathon running, the skills required to successfully manage people are frighteningly complex. We need to be able to listen. To interpret. To empathise. To measure. To develop. To support. To direct. To challenge. To correct. To inspire. And, not only that. People management is an unforgiving discipline. Our people, entirely correctly, expect a first class experience each and every time they interact with us. If we run a marathon badly we might achieve a slightly sub-standard time, or, at worst, injure ourselves. If we undertake a piece of programming badly we might make an error. Possibly a major error, true – but almost certainly one which can be fixed.
If we manage our people badly, however, the impact we have can be irretrievable. One poor interaction between employee and manager can immediately start to erode the trust and the relationship between you and that individual. Multiple poor interactions make the relationship untenable, and permanently impact both the employee’s view of the organisation and their ability to deliver for it. Ultimately, that old adage of people leaving managers rather than businesses comes to fruition – and you could lose one of your very brightest and best, all because of a series of sub-standard management interventions.
The most important discipline
In organisations across the globe, people management is seen as an ‘add on’. An additional skill that employees progressing to a certain level of seniority will need to somehow pick up, acquire, and demonstrate consistently, day in, day out.
And this, in my view, is one of the greatest weaknesses almost all businesses possess. People management is not a secondary skill. It is, arguably, the most important discipline within your organisation; the thing which will make or break your employee experience, determine your employee engagement levels, and ultimately decide whether or not you achieve your organisational goals.
You can absolutely become a better people manager. You can hone your skills. But, fundamentally, you either have the ability to listen, support, develop and inspire, or you do not. Let’s stop trying to force square pegs into round holes. Let’s separate our task-based managers from our people managers. We wouldn’t expect a customer services manager to suddenly be able to complete the month end financial accounts, so why do we expect someone who is an expert in processing to seamlessly transition into a first-class people manager? We are kidding ourselves if we expect them to be anything other than mediocre, regardless of the amount of time and effort we put into ‘training’ them.
Born, not made
People managers are born, not made. People management is a critical discipline for each and every organisation out there. Let’s stop pretending it is a skill we can teach, and instead focus our time and our energies into bringing in natural people managers into our businesses who can really make a tangible difference and deliver what our people really need.
It is time to ensure that we get it right.