Key questions to ask when a manager is failing

HR are often the first to notice when a manager is struggling with their role.

There’s an unusually high turnover of staff in their team. Absence levels in the department are going through the roof. Project deadlines are slipping and performance is on a downward spiral.

In these scenarios, it’s easy to assume that the manager in question just isn’t up to the job. But it’s not always that straightforward. Often, there are underlying reasons why a manager may be floundering – and with just a little bit of support and the right kind of intervention from HR, the situation can quite easily be turned around.

So if you sense that a manager is struggling, what are the key questions you should ask – and what action can you take to turn them from a failing employee into a top performer?

Are people skills the problem?

People are often promoted into management roles because of their specialist or technical expertise. It’s ‘expected’ that because they are now in a senior position, they will automatically be capable of managing their team. But throwing employees head-first into a role that involves managing people without any kind of prior experience, training or support is a recipe for disaster.

Often, people who are technical specialists don’t have the high-level interpersonal skills needed to engage, motivate and develop a team. Not because they are not capable of developing the necessary self-awareness, but because they’ve simply never had to. They struggle to hit the right note when it comes to managing performance – either taking a draconian approach and constantly looking over people’s shoulders, or leaving people to flounder without any guidance about priorities or what’s expected.

They don’t know how to deal with the disputes that inevitably arise between colleagues and are worried about tackling sensitive subjects like stress or dealing with returners in case they fall foul of the law. If as an HR practitioner you can see that the manager is in unfamiliar territory when it comes to people management, you need to step in and provide guidance, support and training to help them become confident in their role.

Is the manager clear about the bigger picture?

It’s easy for managers – particularly those in the middle of the organisation – to feel very disconnected from the overall business strategy. They get swept up in the day-to-day challenges of getting the job done and managing the team, and end up fire-fighting rather than taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture.

They get embroiled in internal politics and find themselves working to other people’s agendas rather than their own. This situation is often exacerbated in organisations where significant change is taking place or in fast-moving businesses where the goal posts are constantly changing. If managers are not clear about the overall strategy, they often end up prioritising the wrong things – and as a result, come to be seen as unsuccessful or under-performing by their seniors.

HR’s responsibility is to open up the lines of communication in the business so that managers know what they need to do to translate strategy into action on the ground. Often, this means working directly with the board to help them find the best way of sharing their goals in an engaging, motivating way that makes it clear how people’s individual roles fit into the wider picture. A consistent, transparent approach to performance management, where clear objectives are set and regularly reviewed, can also play a major part in helping managers lead both themselves and their teams successfully.

Does the manager have the right internal support network?

Being a manager can be a lonely job. If people have recently been promoted they often find themselves isolated from the peers who were previously their support. Their colleagues may even have become their direct reports, leading to a subtle shift in what had previously been a valued relationship. Many managers also feel that they need to be seen to know all the answers. They are worried about showing any kind of vulnerability in case it is perceived they are not up to the job.

What this all adds up to, is managers who have become a little adrift because they don’t have the right internal support networks anymore. They lack people to bounce ideas off or to discuss challenges and issues with. They become increasingly isolated and without help and support, can find themselves sinking under a pile of problems and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

This is where mentoring comes in. If the business has a formal mentoring scheme, HR need to encourage managers who they suspect may be struggling to get involved. If nothing formal exists, it should still be possible to help the manager find a colleague who can mentor them or set up an informal peer support group where managers from different teams and departments can collaborate and share issues.

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