Things have never been more challenging for middle managers. As the situation changes from pandemic to endemic, the workforce is yet again wriggling through another season of change. Now widely referred to as the Great Resignation, it is an uncomfortable time of shifting and settling.
A recent Gallup study has suggested that the Great Resignation is really the Great Discontentment. “Reversing the tide requires managers who care, engage, and give workers a sense of purpose, inspiration, and motivation to perform. They give people reason to stay. Reversing the Great Resignation requires fixing the Great Discontent — and managers are the key.”
‘Reversing the tide requires managers who care, engage, and give workers a sense of purpose, inspiration, and motivation to perform.’ – GALLUP
Understanding what staff are going through is key for managers. And it turns out that this Great Discontentment is more than people being dissatisfied with work. For many, it is a season of discovery and reflection regarding their purpose and the value they bring to the workplace, and beyond that.
While the Great Discontentment poses a challenge to managers on top of the pressures of delivering business results, it can be tackled by strengthening the manager-staff connection.
The remote and hybrid workplace setting comes with less opportunities for managers and staff to build relationships. As a result, managers must be intentional in increasing focus on introducing ways to connect with their staff relationally.
Managing teams at ROHEI for the last 14 years, what I have learned is that the same principles that worked before the pandemic have helped me and my staff through difficult seasons of remote work.
While strengthening my bond with members of my team, the manager-staff connection has allowed us to work through various unexpected scenarios and collaborate even more effectively.
Drive ownership through increased communication
When schedules become more demanding, it is tempting to skip check-ins and team meetings. But it is when things are increasingly hectic that it is all the more crucial to communicate. Regular communication sessions at the team level and personal level were a practice I could not neglect.
‘When schedules become more demanding, one thing I cannot fail to do is to continue regular communication sessions at the team and personal levels.’ – KAREN CHAN
For weekly team meetings, I opened the agenda for anyone who needed to clarify or resolve anything at the team level so as to encourage peer learning and sharing. Likewise for our 1:1s, a more private conversation, staff were in charge of the agenda, allowing them to bring up topics that were important to them. This helped foster a sense of ownership that has been critical in building sustainability, because staff are able to value-add in a way that better matches their own capacity. This increases their sense of belonging and camaraderie. They helped each other instead of relying only on me to provide all the solutions.
It takes courage to connect
Communication does not necessarily result in connection. But when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and humble in your communication, you build a connection. Leaders and managers don’t always have the answers, and this takes great courage to admit. Instead of trying to solve every problem, we can listen with empathy, acknowledge issues, and show support.
‘Leaders and managers don’t always have the answers. Instead of trying to solve every problem, we can listen with empathy, acknowledge issues, and show support.’
– KAREN CHAN
These points of intentional connections were key to building and sustaining trust that propelled my team forward together. As a team, we were then able to own complex problems together and my role evolved into helping them move the process along towards a solution or decision, whether it be bridging with another department or involving stakeholders who could share the relevant knowledge and bring greater clarity.
Communication does not necessarily result in connection. These points of intentional connections were key to building and sustaining trust that propelled my team forward together. – KAREN CHAN
Just a word of clarification on humility and vulnerability in communication: be discerning in matters of timing and how much or how heavy what you are sharing is. Be mindful of the possibility of staff getting overwhelmed or demotivated by the information shared.
In order to go far, you need to go deep
As a leader, you are managing people, not tasks. You must then be intentional in relating to them on a personal level. HBR identifies the “need to change managers’ mindsets and skill sets from managing tasks to managing the full experience of employees. This goes beyond managing employees’ specific responsibilities, extends to managing their perception of their career trajectories, the impact of work on their personal lives, and their relationship with the organization as a whole.”
As a leader, you are managing people, not tasks. – KAREN CHAN
Deep and personal conversations with staff were most meaningful to me as they helped me understand what each was personally and professionally struggling with and their evolving needs and priorities amidst all the changes. Being curious, listening, and asking questions were instrumental in helping deepen these conversations, with the sole purpose of ensuring the staff felt understood, acknowledged, appreciated, and supported. Very often, I found that the staff was not necessarily expecting me to resolve their issues, but a listening ear to acknowledge where they were at and accountability to be able to take simple steps forward.
We would have an open discussion on what they were doing well in and areas they could work on. We reached agreements on how I could support them in their growth in their roles or life stage. I would also solicit feedback on their observations as a means to continuously learn from them and look for opportunities to improve.
Such deep conversations have resulted in the enriching of roles through broadening assignments in multi-functional teams for career growth and capability development, adjusting of work schedules to help staff in the transitioning of their life stage, and expanding a role to better integrate with another function so that the workflow can be more seamless. All this paved the way for greater productivity, development in my staff’s capabilities, and an environment where they know their workplace cares about their personal lives as well.
The timeless ingredients in strengthening the manager-staff connection are the same ingredients for strengthening any relationship - to focus on the person rather than the task, to be curious and interested rather than judgemental, and to engage rather than dictate. As relationships strengthen, trust is built and sustained to weather the changes and challenges ahead.