By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
We often think about management as a team sport. We manage a team, grow a team, set team goals, talk about the importance of “being a team player,” and so on. And while there can be value to this mentality, especially when we think about direction, expectation-setting, and accountability measures, it’s important to remember that every team is made up of individuals. And individual people need individual guidance and management. In fact, while great managers should strive for fairness and equity, they should not aim for equality or sameness when it comes to people management. You don’t manage a group of robots, after all. These are individual people with individual needs, motivations, strengths, and growth opportunities and deserve to be managed accordingly.
It’s also worth noting that the language of teams is pretty loaded. Unless your direct reports have joined an actual sports team, there is nothing that says that work necessarily feels like being on a team, to them. When managers and organizations use terms like “team” and “family” and “community” and even “collegiality,” they are making broad assumptions that everybody sees those terms the same way. What if your experience with family or community has been something quite toxic or abusive? Are you going to be drawn to something (else) that is being described in those terms? Probably not. It’s easy to weaponize these terms, to insist that everyone show up and be part of a family, or a team, and behave accordingly. Personally, I don’t come to work to find a family. I already have one and it’s more than enough, for me.
Effective management is built on individual relationships. There is no such thing as effectively managing from a distance, even in today’s hybrid world. Effective management requires getting to know your people, one by one, consistently over time. Is it work? Absolutely. Does it take a lot of time? You bet. If you don’t want to do the work, if you don’t want to put in the time, then you shouldn’t be a manager. And if you’re thinking, “well, I have way too many direct reports to get to know them all individually,” you’re right, and it’s time to think about how to create a different structure.
Building relationships as a manager starts with onboarding. Ask yourself:
What are my expectations for work, for success, for behavior in this organization, and how will I hold them accountable? How will their work be evaluated and measured?
What are my expectations around in-person versus remote work, and why?
Who are the most important people this person should meet in their first few weeks and how can I facilitate those connections?
What are some initial projects I can identify to get them started on day one?
How frequently will we meet for one-on-one conversations, who should schedule those, and who will set the agenda?
Setting and communicating expectations upfront sets the stage for effective relationships, better feedback conversations, and ultimately, better work outcomes. Take the time to talk through these items upfront, as well as to ask your employee what their expectations are for work and your management. As the manager, you set the tone. But this should be a two-way conversation, which is a great first step towards establishing trust and rapport.
Setting (and upholding) clear goals is one of your best tools as a manager. Yes, your team should have goals, and those goals should roll up to organizational goals, mission, and vision. Ideally, the entire team will work together to create these goals, though not necessarily. What’s important is that they are clear, actionable, and each member of the team knows their role in achieving them. Which also means that each member of the team should have individual goals, as well. What should they be working on, and why? How do the goals connect to the team success? How and when will the goals be measured and evaluated and possibly re-set? And how will the goals help to develop their own strengths, skills, and growth areas?
Don’t discount goal-setting as simply a performance activity. It is that, but it’s also one of your best tools to create effective relationships. By having intentional goal-setting conversations, and upholding those expectations, you are demonstrating to your people that you care about and are paying attention to their success and progress.
Finally, building relationships requires ongoing, consistent one-one-one conversations with each of your employees. Ultimately these conversations should be about the work. But this is also a time to get to know your employee as an individual human being. Indeed, a recent study found that “82% of Gen Z report it’s important their supervisor helps them set performance goals; and 83% say they want their supervisor to care about their life.” This won’t apply to all your people, of course, but it’s important to pay attention to what each individual is seeking from you as a manager.
Nobody should be forced to share their lives with you. This is not, after all, a dysfunctional family. This is work. Your job is to ask questions and listen, provide support, and clear barriers to success. And if you’re searching for where to start, start here:
What is one thing that I could do to make your job easier?
What is one thing that I should stop doing that’s getting in my way as your manager?