Managers at middle and senior level have the power to make or break an organisation. Making sure they have the right skills to be effective is therefore critical.
Business leadership has seen a big shift over the past few decades. While financial acumen and technical expertise are still rated highly, managers with self-awareness and self-knowledge and who are able to connect well with others are increasingly being sought out as evidence emerges that these characteristics markedly increase the impact and power of a manager, maximising their ability to lead.
Global giant Google, for example, has started actively looking for these skills in managers after a survey of 10 000 managers a few years ago revealed the surprising finding that the top-rated skills were all about communication and relationship building. Former senior vice-president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, said the company had before hired people on their technical expertise but; “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It's important, but pales in comparison.” More significant, he said, was being able to connect, being accessible to staff members, listening, helping and supporting.
A key lever for organisational success
Managers at middle and senior level occupy positions of tremendous importance in companies. They are the primary influencers of behaviour within organisations, they are jugglers of multiple functions in many directions and influence staff and frequently perform a make-or-break role in several areas that can affect productivity, profitability and sustainability – of both the business and the broader environment.
Enhancing managers ability to connect with and support others should therefore be a priority for modern workplaces, which are already changing at a pace faster than ever before – thanks in part to the rise of AI and digital technology as well as the influx of Generation Z into the workforce. This can cause high levels of stress and anxiety affecting productivity.
A recent study found that six in 10 employees, almost 60% of employees, feel stressed at work. But more worrying, stressed employees are more likely to fall ill as well. Another study by the Stress Institute in Stockholm found that people who worked for bullies or managers who were uncommunicative were 60% more likely to get cardiovascular disease, leading to more heart attacks, than those who worked for kinder leaders. The type of manager someone is and the skills they possess makes a profound difference!
In South Africa, many industries and business are wrestling with these issues and they can be compounded by the fact that workplaces are characterised by high levels of diversity that can increase the probability of a breakdown in understanding.
The mining sector, for instance, saw SA Chamber of Mines CEO Roger Baxter in his 2018 New Year’s message stressing the need for collaborative leadership in the sector, again raising the issue of conflict and tension in the industry as a result of poor relationships between executives, business leaders, miners and trade unions. Management’s obsolete management style of ‘I say, you do’ was the major factor in the regular conflict says Solidarity’s Gideon du Plessis. Professor Ralph Hamman of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB) has done extensive research in this particular area and stresses the need for greater social management in the mining sector involving better interactions, more effective communication and improved relationships between mining employees and executives – often the domain of the middle and senior managers.
Start by going within
So how can organisations go about developing the kind of skills in their managers and leaders to make them more successful in the modern workplace? Evidence is that these are skills that are made not born. While some managers are natural communicators, others struggle in this area and are not able to really connect, to appear honestly interested or caring, but this can be shifted. Such skills can be developed by enabling individuals to gain insight into their personal strengths and weaknesses and exploring how their leadership styles affect others; by examining the effect of certain listening techniques and gaining greater awareness of personal blind spots.
Knowing how to address difficult issues with employees and how to discuss problems at work are much easier when individuals have insight into their own psychological dynamics. This is backed up by research too. A definitive study by Korn Ferry analysts David Zes and Dana Landis highlighted self-awareness as the most crucial development breakthrough for accelerating personal leadership growth and authenticity. The study found that self-awareness was critical to leader success in the workplace as it helped to leverage potentialities. It found that leaders who were not self-aware were not respected as much and suffered from a lack of credibility. Self-aware managers, on the other hand, enjoy more trust and respect from co-workers.
There is evidence on all fronts that management is a changing game. It is no longer about getting other people to do a job, to “fix” a team or “turn around” an office. Instead management is increasingly about introspection and self-mastery. As the pace picks up, managers will increasingly find themselves under pressure. By being more self-aware they can ensure that they are able to keep up with the demands of their role while ensuring that their teams and colleagues are able to do the same.
Jenny Boxall is the convenor of the Programme for Management Development and The New Manager programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business.