Do you ever have stress dreams about managing your team?
I recently dreamed that I’d earned my first management position and was over the moon. I felt ready to take on the world, give high fives down the sales floor, and lead rousing discussions in team meetings that would change the course of business forever.
My dream-state excitement was only slightly dimmed when I glimpsed my calendar, packed to the gills with personal tasks and team members’ needs. I weathered the storm of a massive policy roll-out with as much grace as I could muster. But then, I had to handle a highschool-level conflict between two team members that escalated into an epic dreamland fist fight. I agonized over a really tough call between quality and sustainability that cost my dream-company millions of dollars.
I woke with heart racing and felt immediately grateful that these team management challenges have clear real-world solutions.
After many years as the CEO of my own employee rewards company, I’ve learned how to approach moments like these with confidence. But some of the most difficult management challenges still take careful deliberation between myself and my department managers in order to resolve.
The top three challenges explored here are some of the toughest situations I’ve had to navigate as a business leader—and I’m here to give you the tools you need to overcome them.
#1: Managing Team Performance
Most new managers consider time management their biggest challenge. However, according to a recent Robert Half Management Resources survey, managing former peers and friends is a solid runner up. Careful negotiation of social and emotional expectations is key toward making that transition from “friend” to “leader,” especially when managing team members at the lower and upper extremes of performance.
We’ve all struggled to motivate underachieving team members at some point in our careers.
It’s easy to feel like you’re too lenient or too harsh when holding employees accountable. Each individual has different needs when it comes to leadership, and finding that line can take plenty of stressful trial and error. It might take months to figure out how to motivate that one employee who doesn’t seem to care about much of anything—or to decide that it’s finally time to part ways.
But after gaining some experience, you’ll likely find yourself presented with the opposite challenge: finding appropriate ways to manage and incentivize your top performing employees.
When managing team members at either end of the productivity spectrum, it’s extremely important to set clear expectations—and to always, always, always follow through.
Building a team of employees is like managing a successful classroom. A master teacher sets clear, measurable objectives for their students to meet. They make absolutely sure each student understands what’s expected before beginning an assignment. And they follow through to redirect those who aren’t on task or assist those who aren’t making adequate progress.
As a manager, you should do the same.
You’ll save a lot of time and energy by setting your team up for success. Make expectations crystal clear, and consider putting top priorities for each role in writing. Establish a constructive feedback loop with each direct report. Document each individual’s progress with precision, and stay firm when holding them accountable.
When you establish a structured foundation as a manager, you’ll find it much easier to manage your team’s performance. Plus, you’ll be far more prepared to give accurate evaluations when the time comes.
#2: Chameleon Communication Skills
New managers and seasoned veterans alike tend to ask the same questions when it comes to communication.
How do you build rapport with your employees while still keeping a professional distance? What’s the best way to communicate during a crisis, layoff, or team-wide setback? We intuitively know that we need to speak differently to each of our direct reports, but that practice can leave us feeling inauthentic and emotionally drained by the end of the day (or year).
To tackle this challenge, keep in mind that according to research from Robert Half, more than 75% of workers consider integrity to be the most essential leadership attribute.
In a managerial context, integrity means never changing what you’re saying to different team members or in different circumstances. But to communicate effectively, you absolutely must change how you’re saying it.
In other words, you need to become a communication chameleon.
I recently faced a significant communication challenge when I made the tough decision to alter a policy that impacts everyone at our firm—and I knew that not everyone would be pleased with the change. I had to structure my message differently in order to achieve maximum success with each group.
First, I discussed the matter privately with my small team of managers. I spoke candidly and openly, asked for questions and comments, and took careful note of their opinions. I approached them as valued peers and allies.
I then disseminated the announcement to the rest of the company with a confident, positive, and hopeful tone. I left little room for questions or doubts in my announcement but openly acknowledged potential challenges my employees might face as a result of this change. I invited them to discuss concerns individually with their managers.
Finally, in one-on-one meetings with individual employees, I asked for their feedback and acknowledged their feelings on a more personal level. My primary goal was to show that I cared and understood.
Make negotiations like these easier by writing down your key message—the official company stance on the event/policy/change—and keep those facts front and center during each interaction. This maintains the integrity of your message. Then, thoughtfully consider your “audience” for each interaction. Anticipate their emotions, their motivation, and their possible reactions or outcomes. Tailor the tone and pacing of your message accordingly.
I recommend using this method any time you struggle with communication as a manager.
#3: Mediating Interpersonal Conflict
Whether you’re dealing with a classic “he said she said” situation or a full-blown power struggle on the sales floor, it’s all too easy to be unexpectedly derailed by a tense situation in your team. It’s happened to the best of us.
No matter how much you think you already know about mediating conflict, you can always learn more. Continually seek new training resources and increase your knowledge of emotional intelligence, active listening, and professional compromise. This is one continuing-ed subject I think should be mandatory for all managers.
In the meantime, here are some of my own tried-and-true practices for managing conflict:
- Always address it. The “let it blow over” strategy never works. This leaves employees feeling unsupported and ignored, and the conflicts remain unresolved. I’ve found it’s always better to actually address the problem, even if you’re not prepared to handle things gracefully. Talk everything through, no matter what. It’s also okay to hear each party out and address the situation when all parties are calm and not triggered.
- Acknowledge emotions. All conflict is rooted in emotion—so now is your opportunity to ditch the idea that emotions have no place in the office. It’s foolish to ignore feelings altogether when you’re trying to resolve conflict. As a manager, allow your direct reports to openly express their emotions in your one-on-one meetings. With that out of the way, you can work together to establish a professional way to address their concerns. I’ve found that this approach brings about a more open company culture and simplifies the conflict resolution process.
- Stick to the facts. When it comes time to address the problem head-on—let’s say, in a meeting with the two conflicting individuals and a manager—it’s important to stick to the facts. There will always be “your truth”, “his truth,” and “the truth.” At this stage in the resolution process, what was said, what was done, and what measurable outcomes were observed are far more important than inferences and assumptions. Use this idea as a guidepost to bring the conversation back on track.
- Ask questions and really listen. Be the elephant and not the Hippo. After all the grievances have been aired and it’s time to move forward, you and your team members might benefit from asking thoughtful questions. Depending on your personality, this means putting your pride on hold—but by showing humility, you’re likely to inspire the same sentiment in your employees. Some good starters: What would make this situation livable for you? What can I do, as your manager, to help improve this situation? What can you see yourself doing to help this situation resolve? And finally, what could you do differently to avoid this in the future?
These ideas create a solid foundation for conflict resolution. The next time an argument occurs in your workplace, just keep in mind that conflict is a healthy, normal, and often highly productive part of managing a team—and all managers adapt their response to conflict over time.
Management is a complex operation. As a leader, you’re allocating resources, making budget decisions, and managing workflow—but most importantly, you’re managing real people with complex motivations.
It’s going to take time for you to learn the skills necessary to tackle these team management challenges head-on. In the beginning, we’re all scared, scattered, and stretched-thin leaders who can barely keep a budget together.
But by improving how you motivate your team members, communicate effectively, and mediate conflict, you’ll master the key elements of good leadership and inspire your team to reach outstanding goals.
At Inproma, we’re passionate about helping managers, CEOs, and HR professionals motivate their teams. We create custom employee incentive programs that improve employee engagement and help managers get back to the rewarding work of inspiring their teams. Want to learn more about what a custom employee recognition program might look like for your company? Let’s talk.