Keep people onside

When dealing with people, there is no single right approach, no one-way system. One size of management does not fit all. The secret of successfully managing people has become a holy grail of the modern workplace. Bookshelves buckle under the strains of management consultant fix-it guides.

But few would argue that effective people management is one of the cornerstones of an organisation’s success. Sports fans will attest to the crucial role it plays in determining how their side performs. We often hear of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hair dryer” treatment meted out to under-performing players. Releasing his frustration by shouting two inches from someone’s face may make him feel better, but it’s pretty poor people management if the luckless player is one who’ll respond more to one-to-one coaxing and cajoling.

The most important part of managing people well is to recognise them as individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. Managers must put themselves at the centre.

Above all, your team need to be clear about the task in front of them – what they come to work for – and you need to keep it clear. Managers must make sure they thoroughly understand the vision for the organisation and how their work fits into the great scheme of things.

Without any of these, a manager’s time is spent reacting to a disaffected, dissatisfied workforce. Huge effort is wasted on counteracting absenteeism when those who are staying away cannot see the point of going to work in the first place.

Once you’ve established the what, why and how of the organisation or team, your job is to manage people to accomplish the task, and this means real, face-to-face relationships. You cannot manage people by procedure. If someone is late for work, ask them about it straightaway. If they are always in good time for things and can be relied on, tell them. In both cases ask yourself, “Am I setting a good example and can I learn something from them?”

Good managers always try to put themselves into other people’s shoes. So tread lightly. Don’t you like to know where you stand? So don’t surprise someone by saying you thought the report they did three months ago was poor.

First, that person will not trust your silence again. Second, the opportunity to put the report right will probably have gone and you did not give them the chance. You will certainly have gone down in the staff’s estimation, and risk being seen as someone who either bottled a difficult message at the time or who is simply thoughtless. Or both. And staff have long memories.

This is about effective communication. If you keep your staff in the dark, few will use their initiative or be willing to take responsibility for decisions. Managers must be prepared to work at communication. Formal weekly team meetings (but make sure there is something worth saying or hearing) and one-to-one briefings are important.

And communication, as with managementality, is never-ending. Indeed you should find ways to be with your team informally: take breaks with them and make the tea or do the washing up; open up a bit about your personal life; be helpful in small, practical ways. Such things take up little extra time but they are part of a strong management message. Also be open to questions, queries and short, unplanned meetings with staff members. It will encourage each person to use their initiative within the limits you have set them.

In one instance, a member of staff was under considerable work pressure. He was invited to discuss and reflect on his business objectives and he identified three that could be slow tracked and the rest as must dos. This was agreed and the remaining objectives were delivered satisfactorily and with lower stress. His interest in and commitment to the appraisal system increased and his work improved.

Do be consistent too. If you have a reason for treating what seems to be similar to yesterday’s situation differently today, make sure people know why. Don’t let people think you are just in a different mood, or that it is because you have favourites in the team.

People must see you as reliable, and be able to predict by and large what your response is likely to be. If they can’t, they are likely to lose confidence in themselves as well as you.

John Belcher is chief executive, Anchor Trust; John Burton is an independent consultant; Tony Hunter is director of social services, housing and public protection; and Kathryn Stone is director of Voice UK.

 “When I was….

…dealing with a trade union official, angered at my refusal to allow bereavement leave following the death of a staff member’s hamster, it was one of the watershed moments of my career. “

“…chairperson of a voluntary organisation, I often did the things we couldn’t afford to pay for. I once took most of one Saturday to plumb in a dishwasher in a care home. The hours spent under the sink meant staff respected me for getting my hands dirty. And I got to know a lot more about the place and the people.”

“…a first-line manager, my manager thought we valued his daily, detailed, hands-on guidance. But we felt crowded out and not trusted to do a good job. We preferred him to provide a better sense of direction and priorities, and to represent us more effectively to senior management. Although giving him this feedback was painful, we were the better for it.”

Top tips

  • Be a good role model. Don’t expect people to respect you if you are always late or shabby or disorganised or ill- informed.
  • Try to deal with everyone face-to-face and as soon as you can.
  • Walk the job.
  • Set clear objectives but be flexible about revising them.
  • Exercise leadership when consensus is not producing a direction.

Rubbish tips

Make sure everyone likes you: they will think you are excellent at your job.

  • Objective setting is a waste of time in a fast-moving world.
  • The best way to empower staff is to let them set the agenda all the time.
  • Treat everyone the same.


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