Level Up Your Management Skills By Adopting These 5 Traits

Like a lot of things in life, managers run the gamut from fantastic to terrible. There are horror stories of the boss that refused to let an employee off for his father’s funeral or the retired general that made his private sector employees march behind him in rank.

On the other hand, some bosses rank among the greatest teachers and mentors, giving their employees opportunities to succeed and the tools to match. The bad news is a lot of managers have no idea where they lie on the continuum of leadership, and many think they lean much farther to the “greatest teachers and mentors” side than they actually do.

The good news is managers with at least a modicum of self-awareness and some willingness to change can easily get their hands on a fair amount of research and writing about what makes an effective leader.

So, if you fancy yourself a self-aware manager with a willingness to change, a good, and free, place to start is viewing Gallup’s recent study on the “State of the American Manager“. The comprehensive report combed through tons of data and came up with five key traits shared by the country’s most effective managers:

  1. They motivate and engage every single employee with a compelling vision
  2. They are assertive enough to drive outcomes and overcome adversity
  3. They create a culture of accountability
  4. They build trusting relationships
  5. They make decisions based on productivity, not politics

Like a lot of management speak, these may sound straightforward, but just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s easy or unimportant. When Gallop pinpointed these traits, it found that managers exhibiting a majority of them were described as “highly talented” managers, while those managers that only showed evidence of some of these traits were described as “functioning talent” or, worse: “low-talent managers”. You certainly don’t want to work with–much less be–a “low-talent manager”.

Plus, the payoff from focusing on these traits can be huge. The study found that companies that promote managers fitting the “highly talented” profile saw increases in productivity, employee engagement, customer engagement, and profitability. On top of that, their high performing employees stuck around longer than average, keeping available a healthy talent pool from which to draw more great managers.

So, how to acquire and leverage the five traits needed to excel as a manager? I’m breaking each one down below:

1. Motivational

Setting a goal is great, but clearly demonstrating the rationale behind that goal is the driving force behind motivation. Employees go above and beyond when they truly believe in the project they’re working on and understand that it’s worthwhile. Asking people to dig holes that will be filled in later is not going to bring out the best in people unless they understand that the company is sowing seed in between the otherwise meaningless activities. When employees understand that their actions, no matter how apparently small or silly, are part of a larger plan, they are much more likely to go above and beyond to get the job done.

In his book “How to be an Even Better Manager“, Michael Armstrong recommends thinking of an employee’s “unsatisfied needs” and then focusing on framing projects to help satisfy them.

Motivation, Armstrong suggests, can be broken down into needs, goals, and reinforcement.

  • Needs: Every employee has needs in their jobs, especially around achievement, recognition, responsibility, influence, and personal growth.
  • Goals: Goals should be well-defined, challenging, reachable, and fair, and their accomplishment should help satisfy the above needs.
  • Reinforcement: if/when a goal is reached, the employee should be rewarded, and then given another opportunity to reach a goal / satisfy a need.

Of course, it’s not always as simple as setting a goal and assuming your employees will want to achieve what you want to achieve. There are actually two types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation is when employees are engaged in their work and believe that what they are doing is important. You motivate these employees that giving them opportunities to achieve their goals as above.
  • Extrinsic motivation is when employee is motivated when given an incentive to work or a punishment for inadequate work. Incentives include the obvious, like a pay raise or praise, and punishments can be anything from withholding pay to disciplinary action to outright criticism.

The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it often has an immediate, but not long-lasting impact. This is a huge problem for managers that are focused on short-term results and may not see that quick bursts of accomplishment are actually killing their teams for the long-run.

Take a good hard look at how you’re motivating your employees, and ask yourself if the way you’re presenting goals makes them feel like accomplishing those goals helps them satisfy their own needs. Then, decide whether or not you want to layer some extrinsic motivation on top of that, but be careful how you measure the results. Short term wins could be bad for overall motivation down the road.

2. Assertive

This one is a minefield. There are all kinds of ways to mess up and come across as that other A-word (Arrogant – what did you think we meant?). Forbes has this problem covered with a article on the best ways that managers can be assertive without being jerks. The top four takeaways?

  1. Being assertive often comes with a stigma of being stubborn and not listening to others, so before you even try to assert yourself, make sure you connect with your employees and create a relationship based on clear communication.
  2. Give feedback that helps, and don’t criticize for no reason. Make sure that while you’re being assertive, the employee is focused on the task you are trying to make happen, not the style in which you’re presenting it.
  3. As much as possible, use assertiveness to build consensus. Involve others in the decision making process so that when you need to push something through, they’re already invested in making it happen.
  4. Be the change you want to see in others. Be a role model for your employees.

Our old friend Armstrong writes that being assertive is just one of a combination of things that can help you get things done:

  • Assertive– make your goals clear
  • Persuading– using facts to back your stance and use those facts to change other people’s mind
  • Bridging– take bits and pieces from other’s arguments and incorporating them into your own.
  • Attracting– be a blast of energy for your own argument and try to attract people based off your energy.

3. Accountable

Accountability may sound rough to an employee, but the key here is that it cuts both ways. Yes, employees are held accountable when mistakes happen or goals are missed, but on the flip (and hopefully much more common) side, they are also held accountable for accomplishments and success.

Still, a culture of accountability won’t just pop up out of nowhere. Managers have to take a central role in its creation, and follow through on it every single day. Here’s what you have to do:

  • Clarify goals and set specific metrics for individual employees. This sets the baseline of accountability for your employees.
  • Collaborate with your employees to set a plan, so that each goal follows another and they can see a what’s coming without having to ask what needs to be done after each achievement.
  • After you have clear goals and a roadmap to meet them, managers have to monitor progress and reinforce the actions and behaviors that get employees closer to their goals. Communication here is key, and you have to check in from time to time to make sure there are no surprises coming.

Finally, set the tone by being accountable yourself. If you aren’t someone they can look to, your employees will dismiss you when you preach accountability in the workplace.

4. Relationship-Builder

Relationships are the backbone of any workplace, and communication is the driving force behind a relationship. Easy, right? So why do so many of us mess it up? Think of a work relationship that you’re having a hard time with as you read through the next five points. Any of this sound familiar?

  1. All relationships start with respect. Plain and simple if you are disrespectful toward your employees then the relationship will be compromised. Look into each interaction and keep your mind peeled for moments when respect could be lost. Bridges burned are almost impossible to reconstruct.
  2. The best relationships are face to face. Ever been in an email spat with someone, and then you talk to them in person and realize everything can be worked out? As good as it can feel to be angry (and RIGHT!) sometimes, the relief of agreement and a handshake is infinitely better. Don’t wait till it’s too late to get to that point. Get out there and talk to your people… in person.
  3. And while you’re face to face with your employees, make sure you’re sharing relevant information with them. This helps you become a reliable source, and earn their respect. As mentioned above, respect is good.
  4. If the relevant information you’re sharing is bad news, find the right place to talk. Chewing out an employee is rarely useful. Except in very rare cases, doing it in the middle of the office is not going to help anyone.
  5. And don’t forget, you’re not the only one with news. Be the best listener you can be. Everybody wants to be heard, so being an active listener for your employees will pay off handsomely.

5. Confident Decision-Maker

The main responsibility of a manager is to be the decision maker and the driving force in implementing those decisions. A manager becomes a leader when he makes decisions and takes them all the way through. So, when you’re making decisions:

  • Get all the facts. Take a deep breath and ask some hard questions before making a move. Jumping to conclusions is a quick way to make you look like a fool.
  • Go through your process of thinking and write it down. Writing things down will help you visualize the end result, and gives you a resource in case you have to describe (or remember!) your original thought process.
  • Then, once you’ve got the facts, be quick. Be… decisive! Don’t let a problem be unresolved for too long, while you hem and haw over what would work best. And once you make that decision, stick behind it and move on to the next issue. Perfection is the enemy of the good.
  • Don’t be afraid of a challenge, but rather attack the problem. Remember that decisions can become opportunities.

Once a decision has been made, make sure you are an essential part of the follow through. If you make a decision, and then forget about it, chances are others will too. Or, maybe worse, they’ll follow all your instructions only to discover you never actually cared about the result in the first place.

So, there you have it. Want to be a great manager? Time to take a hard look at yourself with these five key traits in mind. What it really seems to boil down to is communication, which makes sense if you think about it. Improve what you communicate and how you communicate it, and you’re well on your way to the “highly talented” manager category.

Level Up Your Management Skills By Adopting These 5 Traits