COVID-19 didn’t challenge managers, it exposed them

The remote workforce exposed managers’ lack of skills necessary to lead teams in any environment.

It has become cliché to discuss the upheaval to our personal and professional lives as COVID-19 changed the world. As our world was turned upside down, the focus was on reacting and surviving. With a post-COVID world in our sights, we ought to reflect on what we can learn.

One thing we learned was that front-line managers are critical to the success of the team and, unfortunately, most of them were not up to the task. This is the biggest risk to business going forward.

The conventional wisdom early in the pandemic revolved around managers – how much their role changed, and the new skills they needed to be able to manage remote teams. The remote workforce exposed managers’ lack of skills necessary to lead teams in any environment. In-person teams created a false impression that managers were effective – the pandemic showed us that is wrong.

Managers started having virtual happy hours and virtual meetings. The use of Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and other communication tools increased dramatically. Managers were told to stress communication and pay attention to the well-being of the team. We were all learning new skills in an unpredictable world.

HR industry veteran, research analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Josh Bersin listed some of these new skills in an article by the Society for Human Resource Management. He gave the following recommendations:

  • “How to foster empowerment and professional growth during the pandemic.
  • How to keep up workers’ spirits, sense of connection and productivity ‘in a very distracted work environment at home.’
  • How to encourage workers to check in more frequently while working remotely.
  • How to be sensitive to the personal challenges some people have when working at home.”

Professionals nodded in agreement and added more to the list. However, simply take out any reference to the pandemic or remote working and the list holds up. In fact, it would have been an accurate list at any point in the last 20 years. The advice for managers during a pandemic is the same as it should be in a non-pandemic world.

To be fair to Bersin and SHRM, they were not advocating these traits only for remote managers. The article, though, clearly states that managers “stepped up” these behaviors. Based on steady, dismal employee engagement rates throughout the last 20 years, it is safe to assume these were not the default behaviors of most managers prior to the pandemic.

As the pandemic continued, the data got more confusing. With all the talk about the upheaval and stress on workers and managers, it would be reasonable to conclude that employee engagement would go down. In addition, many articles discussed employees missing seeing coworkers face-to-face and the lost innovation from the casual encounters. But in Gallup’s annual survey on engagement, there was actually an increase to 37 percent engagement from 35 percent in 2019. Granted, the numbers fluctuated during the year, but they were still higher than most people predicted. We suffered through what could be the greatest economic and social upheaval in most of our lifetimes, yet employees were more engaged.

Another study showed that manager burnout increased 78 percent from Q1 to Q4 in 2020. Other studies showed that employee productivity was just fine, either staying the same or slightly increasing. The work was getting done – so why were managers more stressed?

Engaged employees stressed how the company and managers did a good job increasing communication. Employees knew what was happening and why. Even when companies admitted uncertainty, employees took comfort in knowing what the company and its leaders were thinking.

Here is some advice given to managers during the pandemic:

  • Managers need to set clear expectations on tasks for the remote workers.
  • Managers should be sure to provide feedback.
  • Managers should be sure they are communicating often and effectively.
  • Managers should ensure that workers are dealing with emotional issues and have a healthy work life balance.
  • Managers should pay attention to the struggles that employees are having and have open and honest conversations about it – as well as share their own struggles.

Which one of those things would you say a manager shouldn’t have done before the pandemic? Which should they stop when the pandemic ends?

Managers were not executing on the right behaviors before the pandemic. They did have to learn new skills — not because the pandemic changed things, but because they were doing the wrong things before. The blame for this is widespread, but managerial training, however, is a routinely underinvested space. The way to be successful and prepared post-pandemic is to focus on building a culture of great managers. Here’s how to do that:

Improve hiring and promoting decisions

Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer at Microsoft, says “Managers have always mattered.” The practice for as long as I can recall has been that a high performer who wants to advance is the person who gets promoted. For many years, that was a perfectly fine method – until the responsibility of the manager changed.

In the past, the manager was a mentor and guide. They used their skill, knowledge and experience to develop the team. The team expected the manager to have the answer or the ability to find the answer to the tough questions. With experience, the individual contributor would learn.

Managers today have different challenges. They are inter-disciplinary and often can’t keep up with the pace of change. The manager is no longer the “expert” in the department, but the person tasked with ensuring the individual contributors are the experts themselves. Having a VP of HR who is the expert on engagement, labor laws, recruiting and performance management is rare, if not impossible. Having a VP of HR who can hire experts in all those areas and get them to perform well in a cohesive team is possible and preferable.

Companies need to evaluate and hire managers on the ability to serve the team. Do they have the communication and people skills to get the most out of the team?

Better training for managers

Even when hiring an experienced manager, it is naïve to expect that they have been trained properly or were successful leading teams in this new business world. We need to start treating management as an independent profession, which requires ongoing training requirements. Managers should be trained on the basics before they take over a team and then be required to attend regular, ongoing training to continue to develop the proper behaviors.

Management training needs to incorporate more relational skills. Most of the things that managers were being told to do during the pandemic was around relationships: communicate more, check in on people, think about them as people and their individual struggles, etc.

Two of the great management thinkers of our time have been saying this for years. Tom Peters says “Management is not about administration. It is about emotion.” And Mark Horstman of Manager Tools says “the most common mistake of first time managers is not developing relationships with their direct employees.” Teach managers about management tasks and labor laws as appropriate, but focus manager training on relationships, emotional intelligence and empathy.

Focus on key behaviors and develop key manager metrics

Companies need to define the management behaviors that build engagement. The 13 behaviors pictured left are the ones that make a difference day in and day out. If an employee has a family member die, the manager needs to have a good relationship with the employee, show empathy and care about the well-being of the individual.

Further, managers tend to be evaluated by limited metrics – did they meet the revenue, sales and performance targets set for the team? Those are still necessary but we need separate metrics that tell the company how the manager is doing on individual behaviors.

Engagement scores would be one measurement, but it still gives an incomplete picture. Here are some other suggestions:

  • Intentional retention rates: Every manager should be able to identify who they want to keep (good performers with plenty of room for development), who they could lose to promotion (they are ready to move up) and who is not meeting expectations (would have more success elsewhere). Great managers keep the people they should, promote those that are ready and replace those who are not meeting expectations.
  • Promotion rates: Managers should be preparing individuals to be promoted and take on additional skills. If a manager never loses people to promotion, question their ability to develop people well.
  • Coaching skills: First, is the manager coaching people both inside and outside the team? Second, is the manager setting the expectation for the team that they get coaching on improving key skills? Third, does the manager have a coach (or coaches) to help them develop? Great managers can say “yes” to these three questions.
  • Development plan creation: Managers should work with employees to create a development plan and review it regularly.

Hold managers accountable

Companies need to focus on holding managers accountable not only for the results expected, but the way they get those results. Bobby Knight was the coach of Indiana University with titles and wins under his belt. He was also known for his abrasive personality. When he received criticism, his supporters would say “but he wins.” This implied two things: the ends justify the means and winning without being abrasive is impossible. Great managers disavow both of those conclusions.

Getting results is great but getting results the right way is imperative. Use the above metrics with the understanding that doing well in key areas will often get you solid results. No one can doubt that the pandemic created difficult times. However, successful companies will identify the things we learned and increase focus on building great managers.