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Human conversations: freedom of speech concept
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How confident are your managers with human conversations?

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New research suggests managers lack confidence when talking to employees about informal issues such as wellbeing and work-life balance. But how can HR help?

31st Oct 2022
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Recent research revealed that just 10% of HR leaders are highly confident in their managers’ ability to talk to employees about informal issues such as wellbeing and flexible working.

It was quite a different story for formal conversations, however, with 90% of HR leaders having either ‘high’ or ‘medium’ confidence in their manager’s ability to discuss formal topics such as objective-setting and performance ratings.

The research paints a polarising picture of managers’ conversational strengths and weaknesses, but why is the gap so stark?

These findings are indicative of a growing misalignment between employee needs and manager capabilities. In the wake of a prolonged pandemic, and as employees now grapple with the cost-of-living crisis, it’s fair to say that the manager’s role has evolved more in the past two years than it had in the previous twenty.

The role of manager has evolved more in the past two years than it had in the previous twenty.

Not surprisingly, many managers are finding themselves outside of their comfort zones as they embark on a new role that is part-boss, part-support worker – and everything in between. The majority simply don’t have the experience or know-how to tackle the sensitive conversations they’re having to deal with.

On top of this, there is also a juxtaposing pressure on managers: on the one hand they’re desperately trying to retain talent amidst ‘the great resignation’; and on the other, they’re having to increase targets and reduce costs as the prospect of recession becomes increasingly likely.

In short: it’s not easy being a manager right now.

So what can HR do to help managers navigate these informal but all-important conversations?

The importance of informal: make managers aware

The first step lies in creating the right mindset: one in which managers view their role as that of a coach whose aim is to help their employees thrive. Rather than managing people, the emphasis is on enabling employees by providing them with the support and tools they need to reach their full potential at work.

But managers can only do this if they know their people and understand the challenges that any one individual is dealing with – it is through informal, human conversations that managers are able to source this vital information.

To put this into context, a manager who actively builds these human conversations into their employee relationships is far more likely to recognise when an employee is struggling with their mental health.

They should not think of themselves as managers of people, but as enablers of them.

That knowledge enables the manager to offer timely support and, on a practical level, ensure the employee is assigned an appropriate workload during their recovery.

The key point here is that while informal conversations may sit in direct contrast to the process-driven conversations that many managers are more comfortable with, they nevertheless sit at the heart of enabling people in the new world of work – a message that HR must continually reinforce across its manager communities.

Support soft skills development

Of course, simply making managers aware of the importance of informal conversations isn’t going to turn the prospective gains into a tangible reality for employees.

The truth is, good managers already understand the value of these human conversations. The issue is rather that the vast majority are less confident in tackling these conversations because they’re not equipped with the right training and tools.

And this is where the biggest opportunity lies.

The pandemic – and now the cost-of-living crisis – have laid bare the critical importance of soft skills development in the workplace. Far from being the ‘fluffy’ stuff that is often side-lined as projects and deadlines take priority, HR teams need to be investing in helping their managers to hone these crucial skills.

So what can organisations do to redress the balance and put soft skills on a par with technical or project management skills?

Embedding the notion that soft skills are valued and encouraged at work is perhaps the biggest determining factor for success. It’s also a point that comes down to culture. Nurturing an environment in which managers are habitually having informal, two-way conversations with their employees is the best way to achieve this – and it starts with role modelling at a senior leadership level.

Embedding the notion that soft skills are valued and encouraged at work is perhaps the biggest determining factor for success.

Employees who see their leaders embody the right behaviours are far more likely to follow suit and, over time, as these behaviours become the norm, they also become an ingrained aspect of company culture.

This culture piece is really the core foundation, but in isolation, it’s not enough. Managers also need regular training in how to talk to their employees about informal – and often sensitive – topics such as mental and physical health, bereavement, or financial wellbeing.

Technology that steers human conversations

Of course, by complementing this training with technology that helps to frame effective one-to-ones, managers will be more equipped to enable their people and drive performance.

But this comes with a key caveat: these tools will only be effective if they can support people at an individual level. There’s no place for one-size-fits-all anymore, and arguably there never was. The spectrum of employee needs, wants, and drivers is larger and more diverse than ever before.

Managers can only do so much without the right tools to help them – especially when it comes to steering those all-important informal conversations.

By integrating the right technologies into the equation, HR can empower managers to feel more confident in their own abilities while ensuring every employee feels included and is able to thrive. 

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