The Best Managers Balance Just Two Needed Skill Sets

During the 23 years that I was the chief executive officer of Hewitt Associates, an international human-resources consulting firm, one of my favorite subjects was how to best develop managers.

When I promoted or hired managers, I looked for two skills (after first reviewing their general intelligence and experience qualifications). I knew that if they had these two skills, they would naturally do all the things I expected and wanted of a manager. They would work well with their people to set goals, create a good team atmosphere, be a coach, insist on and achieve high-quality work, make good decisions, evaluate others fairly and meet or exceed their goals.

Businesses today of all sizes aren’t doing a cost-effective job of training or helping their managers to succeed. Based on my experience, they may need a different way to understand management style. The following are the two skills managers need to be effective, described in terms that will help them — and their employers — to make needed changes.

The first skill is the ability to “relate” to one’s employees. Managers with this skill really listen and understand what their employees are saying and nurture and encourage them to grow and achieve. The ability to relate is crucial because it helps managers understand their direct reports better, use their skills more effectively and gain the benefit of their ideas and natural motivation.

The second skill is the ability to “require”– to insist that timeliness, quality and productivity goals are met. This is also an imperative skill for good managers.

But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. “Extreme Relaters” need to be liked so much that requiring is threatening to them, and they routinely avoid the confrontational aspects of coaching for and insisting on excellence. “Extreme Requirers” need to dominate and expect people to do things their way. As a result, they can’t demonstrate enough relating skills to garner direct reports’ ideas and retain their motivation.

Most managers have degrees of ability in each area, but rely too much on one or the other. As a result, they miss out on potential ways of solving people-management issues. Relaters often try to be their employees’ friend, when they need to be setting priorities and deadlines. Requirers try to dictate how the job should be done, when they need to listen more to those who are closer to the task.

Doing Both Well

The best managers have the ability to do both well and know when to choose one over the other. In fact, relating and requiring are so fundamental to managing that if we trained managers to do them, we could eliminate most of what we now train them to do.

This training would involve understanding whether their natural style is to relate or require. What’s your first inclination: to relate to your people or to accomplish tasks? Once a manager understands his most natural style, he needs to assess if he uses it too much. You relate too much if you believe you’re responsible for your direct report’s success, have such a great need to be liked that you have difficulty disagreeing or correcting work, are constantly trying to receive signals from your people about how they’re feeling, or are accommodating and understanding at the expense of getting work out on time with the highest quality.

You require too much if you don’t give others enough rope to finish their thoughts and sentences, push too hard to do the impossible, don’t change your mind even with new information, criticize others’ ideas quickly, are eager to tell them your agenda but slow to hear theirs, or are arrogant about your abilities and opinions.

Once you understand how much you relate and, separately, require, you know what you need to improve. “Over-Relaters” need to learn how to reduce their need to be liked. “Over-Requirers” need to learn how to reduce their need to dominate. Both need to develop their less natural skills. Relaters need to learn how to better assert themselves and require things of others. Requirers need to learn how to better listen, understand, nurture and encourage others.

Separate Training for Each Type

A few years ago, I ran management courses on relating and requiring for almost 1,000 managers. I heard from Over-Relaters how hard it was for them to say, “I need you to” or “I expect you to” to their employees. These phrases felt risky to the friendship they wanted to have with their employees. I also heard from people who worked for over-requiring managers about how hard it was for these managers to just ask questions and really take time for and care about the answer. They felt at risk when they weren’t in a telling mode. Relaters and Requirers need to be retrained.

Ideally, training should be tailored separately to Relaters and Requirers, giving them different messages. Take decision-making. The Requirer needs to learn how to allow participation by employees before she decides what action to take. The Relater needs to learn when to make a decision and not allow potential disagreements to delay it.

Human-resources professionals should interview applicants with an ear to whether they have both requiring and relating skills. Applicants for management jobs should plan how to demonstrate both R’s in the interview, perhaps through their listening and asserting skills.

To help new and existing managers succeed, companies should help them understand their current leanings and offer separate high-quality training in relating and requiring skills. This will save them money while improving morale and productivity.

By Peter E. Friedes

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