MAD World Hot Topic: practical tips for line managers

Photo of serious wondered lady listening, candidate guy counting personal qualities sitting modern office workshop

One of the most popular sessions at MAD World this year was a panel session on creating psychologically safe teams and the crucial role of managers in that “magic middle”.

As Khushboo Patel, Head of Engagement & Inclusion, Metro Bank said, during this panel, the line manager role is crucial to the wellbeing agenda because “the line manager is the gateway for the colleague experience so creates a positive or negative environment”.

Here we’ve rounded up some tips from the session for line managers to be better people managers.

Show you really care, don’t just pay lipservice to the corporate line

“Caring is the key word,” said Patel. “So many people say ‘yes I care’. But care is such a deep word. To say you care and then actually caring is very, very different. There’s so many things that leaders think show they care but, actually, colleagues don’t feel that care, they think it’s just ticking a box, or putting a strategy together. You have to be genuine. To care is a verb.”

Carole Spiers, Chair, International Stress Management Association (ISMA), agreed believing that psychological safety is only created when managers genuinely care for their employees:

“I really mean that word ‘care’. Managers who care encourage their employees to bring the whole person to work. They appreciate there are good days and rubbish days.”

Ask your team members these questions

Spiers is a great believer in using questions to gauge how your team feel about you as a line manager and whether you’ve managed to create a psychologically safe space. 

Bear in mind that many line managers assume they have created a safe space but far fewer employees believe this: a recent Deloitte study shows that while 91% of line managers were under the impression that their employees believed the organisation genuinely cared about their wellbeing, only 56% of employees said they believed this.

Questions can be a great way to open the conversation and explore whether there’s a disconnect between your perception and your team member’s.

Spiers, who has delivered much training for line managers, suggested these type of questions:

Do you feel you have a sense of purpose?

Do you feel I have good listening skills?

Would you approach me and say ‘hello, have you got a moment?’ and tell me how you truly feel?

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Ask your team for their views anonymously

If you think your team may not speak honestly in a face to face conversation, Patel suggested providing some way that your colleagues can give you anonymous feedback.  

“We have a pulse survey for anonymous feedback. It’s important to have that option, but not hide behind that option. Keep it as a safety net,” she says.

Ask yourself these questions

Similarly, it’s great to take stock and reflect. Again, suggested questions are from Spiers:

When was the last time I said thank you to one of my team members?

When did I last ask a team member whether they felt they had a sense of purpose?

When did I last thank a team member for their work?

When was the last time I asked a team member if they felt valued?

When was the last time I asked a team member if they felt listened to?

When was the last time I asked for feedback on how I’m doing as a line manager?

She added that an effective way to thank a team member could simply be leaving a post-it note on someone’s monitor. These acts are small and don’t cost much, she said, but make a big impact.

Ask Twice

Most of us have the automatic response “fine” to the question “how are you?”. This is why Microsoft based one of its wellbeing campaigns around the strapline: “How are you? How are you really?”

“Model that behaviour of asking twice. Coach your employees to. This is about showing you care,” said Karen Sancto, EMEA Benefits (MEA), Microsoft.

Spiers suggests this is a good tool to use if you’re walking around the office and you recognise the signs that someone isn’t feeling good.  

Check in more often with your remote workers

Undoubtedly it’s more difficult to recognise if a team member is struggling when they are working remotely. 

“You have to check in more often with them, there’s no other way around it,” said Spiers. “Research shows that it’s the frequency of contact between line manager and employer that has a significant effect on engagement.” 

She suggested booking a specific time in the diary to check in with your team members can feel “more meaningful”.

Talk to other line managers 

“When managers share different scenarios it’s really useful because everyone will have had different experiences. There’s manager forums where you can do this,” said Sancto.

Actively listen when they talk

It may sound obvious but we are all guilty of it: when you are asking someone how they are, don’t look at your watch, phone or inbox.

“This includes virtually,” said Patel. “You can see people in virtual calls doing things on the side. Don’t! If someone is remote you can still build that connection but you have to really listen and keep the communication going.”

Create boundaries

“We’ve put an awful lot on the line manager’s doorstep and line managers have to look after their wellbeing too. Line managers need to learn to say no,” said Spiers.

Patel says she’s had to teach herself and be disciplined with herself on this front when she noticed a tendency to overwork: 

“I resonate with this because when you’re motivated you want to do more. And more.  But I’ve learnt I need to say no before I start falling out of love with what I’m doing. I took a step back and I created systems around me to make sure there’s a cut off time for stopping work from home. I’ve had to learn to put boundaries around myself so that I can carry on performing and I’m still loving my job, rather than pushing myself to the brink where I’m not so productive.”

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