When should a manager not be a manager?

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Engineers often need help when they make the transition to management positions, says Neil Lewin of Festo Training & Consulting

There’s a lie that goes on in the workplace – and it’s one that is continuously perpetuated by our organisational hierarchy. The only way to progress your career is to move up from technical roles to management.

We need to ask ourselves why we have this belief. Surely, this just devalues our excellent and technically capable employees? Equally, the skills required by people managers are totally different to technical expertise. A recent survey by Festo shows that technical employees are the least likely to perform well in interpersonal skills and have self-confidence.

In this country, we afford status to those who have ‘manager’ in their job title. By our very nature, this lessens others who keep the engine of the organisation running. And it’s time that we stopped. We need to remove the ‘them’ and ‘us’ conversations that go on in the boardroom and on the shop floor. We need to give equal value to people in different roles and places in our companies. And when we identify someone who does have the well-rounded skills in place to become a manager, then we need to support them in this transition.

The other issue is one that we all face and that’s the skills gap. When we promote people out of, and above, their area of expertise, we frequently lose their knowledge. While they might appreciate the additional remuneration, unless they have a highly qualified successor in place, the impact will be felt on that team and department.

Let’s look at some of the common issues faced by people in their first management role:

  1. Over-reliance on their expertise. New managers often find it difficult to stop being the ‘technical expert’. They become frustrated when their team isn’t working as quickly or effectively as they can. Managers in this position will revert to ‘telling’ people what to do, rather than asking them how they would solve the problem. Their frustration will become palpable and the team will eventually stop thinking for themselves and disengage

”A common mistake is for new managers to feel that they have to know everything. An effective people manager is open to ideas and contributions from all members of the team

  1. Having all the answers: A common mistake is for new managers to feel that they have to know everything. An effective people manager is open to ideas and contributions from all members of the team. It’s important not to dismiss any suggestions or feedback and encourage a two-way, constructive discussion.
  2. Dealing with difficult conversations: This might be addressing poor performance or behaviour, or just handling a team member’s personal issues. Having difficult conversations and managing performance is a stress-point for managers. They need to be supported in terms of understanding their legal obligations, as well as listening to, and understanding, the underlying causes of behaviour.
  3. Knowing when to back off: Over-management is a cause of low levels of employee engagement. An effective people manager allows their team members to get on with their jobs. Of course, they’ll need to be on hand but there’s a good chance that people will perform to a higher level if they believe their manager has faith and confidence in their ability.
  4. Getting stuck in: When a team has to meet tough deadlines, then an extra pair of hands will be appreciated. This doesn’t mean that a manager gets bogged down in the day-to-day work, but that they are sensitive to the pressure and needs of their people.
  5. Taking tough decisions: Management roles have responsibility. They are the link between the organisation and the employees. This means tough decisions will need to be made that can impact their people. All managers should have a strategy in place to identify issues and negotiate a balanced, swift and lasting resolution, if the need arises.
  6. Communication: A shortfall of many managers is understanding how and when to communicate. This is not just sending out mass emails, it’s about engaging with the team as a whole and individuals to get the message across. Equally, communication is rarely employed when there is good news to shout about.
  7. Reward and recognition: People join an organisation but leave a boss, or so the old adage goes. We often think that people are motivated purely by financial rewards, but it has been found that, while these are important, recognition is just as vital.
  8. One eye on the future: New managers often find themselves handling the here and now, and dealing with the problems of yesterday. Good managers should always keep one eye on the future to be able to predict and influence people and company decisions.

”While an individual will likely be anxious, they will often be reticent to admit that they’re nervous or concerned about their ability

Taking on a first management position is stressful. While an individual will likely be anxious, they will often be reticent to admit that they’re nervous or concerned about their ability. That’s exactly why they need support. Don’t wait for new managers to ask for help, by then it will be too late. Put in place a training programme and transition support so that they feel more secure and confident in their position. It’s worth it, as the business will reap the rewards of good managers for years to come.

Neil is a learning and development consultant at Festo Training and Consulting