Being a good manager is difficult, but it’s not difficult because the job is inately hard; it’s difficult because the skills required are not inate to many people, and they have to work hard to have them. This is particular to three skills, in my experience.

The first is developing genuine communication skills. The second is developing inclusive environments. The third is showing adequate appreciation for everyone‘s work, effort, and time. (And yes, the third could probably be included in genuine communication, but it’s a particularly specific issue that is often neglected.)

Note: As I am a teacher and am currently focused in secondary education, that’s the perspective I’m writing this from.

In the 15 years that I’ve been working various jobs in different industries, ranging from the Ponderosa Steakhouse that’s been closed in my hometown for years to two family-owned farming businesses (including one belonging to my grandparents) to teaching in a variety of schools internationally, I have yet to work for a single manager who either already had these skills or even bothered to work on having them. As a result, I constantly work with people who are miserable and unhappy. If they’re not that far gone, they are intensely frustrated with management while simultaneously loving their job (which, upon reflection, I think only applies to those in my current field — education).

The people who become managers (or are hired to be managers) often forget that, while they are responsible for making decisions and ‘being in charge’, the employees they manage are other humans. As a result of working with humans, these humans have needs and often engage in situations that may require mediation of some sort. Instead, some managers act as if they are working with robots who will just tolerate the decisions being made without complaint. Even if this isn’t the belief they openly hold or genuinely adhere to, they still often internalise the kind of management that has been failing everywhere else and making great managers so rare. And these people, whether they admit it or not, are a huge factor in employee engagement and retention.

Humans, for better or worse, often have issues with other humans. Part of a manager’s role is to help mitigate and mediate these, often working on ways to prevent it from happening in the first place. If any employees have made it known that they are feeling left out of decisions and excluded from projects by other staff, it is the manager’s responsibility to find out how to rectify this problem.

There are a number of questions to ask when doing this: When did it start? What allowed for these rifts and divisions to exist? Were there signs of this happening? If so, what were they? What steps can we take to fix this problem? How can we better encourage and teamwork among our staff and promote the inclusion of everyone? (This last point is particularly important for educational institutions, which often claim they want ‘collaborative teaching’ but rarely do much to enable it.)

Humans are not robots, and they often have other responsibilities beyond work. As much as I wish I were Data, the unfortunate fact is that being human means I have my limits.

Say there is a project in a school that is incredibly time-consuming and requires a lot of data input of 400 items, and one employee has volunteered to completely set it up and work on it in their free time (meaning non-teaching and non-planning hours). As the manager, you recognise that it is a large undertaking; however, you don’t know all the intricacies of the task, as you delegated it to this employee. You ask the employee to complete it within 20 hours spread over two weeks.

The employee, however, responds with concerns. First, their access to required resources is blocked by another employee. When they run out of materials, they have to then wait on someone else to grant them access to more. Sometimes this takes hours, other times it takes days. Second, they state that it is nearly impossible to do in that timeframe because they have to manually input all the data for each item; they tell you that the average time for one item is 15 minutes. If they have to manually input the data for all 400 items, that’s 100 hours, and that’s also assuming that they won’t have to restart computers and never take a break for anything at all. They request additional hours (paid overtime) or a decrease in other required functions; they also state that, for every time they are required to take additional hours (events, duties, or substitutions), they need to given additional time to complete the task.

As a manager, what do you do?

Do you argue with the employee and get defensive over the decision you made? Hopefully, not. If you do, you’re only going to make them distrust you. In all likelihood, they’re going to disengage with work and tell you “Yeah, sure” and do whatever work they feel like at that moment. The other alternative is that they try their best to meet the expectations and become over-stressed for fear they might lose their job. You might even get a combination of the two. Either way, they feel insulted, like you’re not listening to them, and that you don’t care.

This is, as a whole, a poor form of communication.

So do you stop to listen to the employee and recognise that they might have more expertise on the project than you do, as they are the one responsible for setting it up? I hope so. If you do this, you’re spending time asking questions and trying to better understand the project. You’re showing that you’re willing to understand why it’s taking so long, what work is involved, and why so much of it has to be done manually. If you do this, you’re far more likely to be open to discussion and compromising with this employee; you’re also able to properly express why it needs to be completed. As a result, the employee is going to feel like you care about them and are willing to be flexible enough to help them finish the task.

Managers actually have to set guidelines and communicate information effectively. Recently, I watched some teachers put together an absolutely fantastic event for school. They put a lot of work and time into putting it together, but they kept hitting obstacles and roadblocks from management regarding different elements. But why?

Because management did two things: One, they kept changing their mind on how to handle certain aspects of the event right up until the very last minute. Two, the teachers had provided a full range of ideas for what they wanted to do through meeting minutes, but management did not disseminate relevant informations (policies, laws, guidelines) and did not address what the teachers had already submitted. In short, management was so scarcely involved that when they finally did or said something, it frustrated the people who were putting in hours to make sure a school event went smoothly.

It’s obvious what should have been done here: Management should’ve been far more interested in what was happening, rather than waiting until that final second. They should have provided guidelines for activities the teachers wanted to do, rather than suddenly hit them with “We can’t do this because of reasons” a mere 24 hours before. If management had been more engaged in the planning process, the levels of frustration would’ve been so much lower.

Managers are responsible for hiring decisions, which also means that they’re responsible for appropriate training of employees. A lot of jobs hire people who aren’t perfectly qualified; that’s normal. For teachers, sometimes there are systems that they have to learn (curriculum, online gradebooks, school-wide classroom technology programs) as they work.

However, it is not the job of other employees to train their fellow employees on these systems. We do it both out of kindness and necessity, but it is not our job. Ensuring everyone is up-to-date on skills is the manager’s job, and it is also their job to ensure that training is available.

Now, if you delegate this training to an employee who is capable, you need to create a structure to do so. In a collaborative school environment, this could be having each teacher (or a pair of teachers) do a training day on an app or a specific teaching technique. You could also create mentorship programs within the school, pairing teachers who lack certain skills to those who have them. Some schools my friends work in have mentor programs where veteran teachers are paired with new teachers to help them get acquainted with the profession, the school, and classroom management; this is done on a rotational basis per year, so people don’t feel overburdened or used.

But you also need to acknowledge the time these employees give up to be trainers or mentors. You can do this by decreasing duties elsewhere (recess duties) or providing a ‘mentor bonus’. In applicable schools, my friends’ mentors would have received an additional bonus to their salary for doing this. However, because they were required to on a rotational basis, the salary was not the only reason they became mentors; it just ensured that they made time for it. (And mentees who felt their mentors were not engaging with them could talk to management about it.)

All of these scenarios involve one or more of the three skills that managers should have. There are so many ways to try to develop inclusive, communicative environments where people value the work of others. It shouldn’t be so hard to do this, but so many people focus on the so-called traditional management methods that they neglect to find that many of them don’t work and negatively impact everyone involved. And it seems that it’s largely due to the fact that our managers aren’t even trained to manage people, which is a whole other problem.

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