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Top 5 leadership skills for line managers

Line managers play a crucial role in any organisation. They take responsibility for their team’s development to ensure that business goals are met, by providing guidance, instruction, motivation and feedback. To succeed in their roles, line managers are required to demonstrate a wide range of leadership skills. 

Leadership is defined in the Skills Builder Universal Framework as supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal. There are many different concepts and strategies that can be mastered within leadership so to keep it simple, we’ve captured our top 5 leadership skills for line managers.

1. Empathy

How someone is feeling will affect the way they approach their work. If someone is sad or upset, they are likely to produce less work, or work of a lower standard. To be able to support someone appropriately, it is important that you not only identify their emotion but to ensure you have the correct understanding.

It is not always easy to tell what emotion someone is feeling, and some people might choose to try to hide how they are feeling for different reasons. Although we might be able to get a sense of how other people are feeling through their facial expressions and body language, we should not just presume that we understand. We might have misread how they are feeling or what they are thinking, and we might not know why they are feeling that way. 

To demonstrate good leadership skills, we should try to learn more about why people feel the way that they do about something. To do this, we can use:

  • A safe space – making sure people feel that they can share how they are feeling about something without getting into trouble. 
  • Open questions – these are questions that do not presume to know the answer. For example, you might ask someone “What do you think about that?” or “How do you feel about that?” ‍
  • Ask follow up questions – to check your understanding, you can use follow up questions but again try not to presume you know the answer. For example “What is it that disappoints you about that?”

Time spent with a colleague actively listening and asking open questions, will ensure you do not misread the reasons for their emotional feeling. You may not be able to help them overcome the feeling but by acknowledging and listening you are providing support which will help them to feel part of the workplace.

2. Recognising strengths and weaknesses

In a workplace department, individuals will have different strengths and weaknesses, this is likely to be the case even if a department has a single function and comprises similar roles. For a department to function most effectively and efficiently, we need to allocate a role to the most appropriate person, if not, the department’s productivity is likely to be reduced.

To demonstrate this particular aspect of leadership, take a balanced approach to thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of your team members, including these four areas:

  • Knowledge and understanding: The expertise and experiences that individuals have, which might consist of formal qualifications, or years of doing something similar. 
  • Relationships: The people that they know, and how positive and trusting those relationships are.  
  • Character strengths: The traits that people have and the choices they make – perhaps including being honest, reliable, careful, enthusiastic, for example.
  • Skills: These are the things that individuals can do. We can think about three types of skills:
  • Basic or Foundational Skills: Being able to read and write (literacy skills), work with numbers (numeracy skills) and use some technology (digital skills). 
  • Essential Skills: The essential skills that almost everyone needs to some degree to do almost anything – these are the focus of the Skills Builder Framework and include communication, creative problem solving, self-management, teamwork and leadership skills. 
  • Technical Skills: Skills that are job or role-specific – like plumbing, nursing or accounting qualifications and a lot more.

There are different ways of recognising the strengths and weaknesses that people have:

  • Sometimes our interactions with people help us to build up a sense of their skills and how well they can do things like listen, speak, solve problems or work with other people. We can also get a sense of how they behave, make choices, their knowledge and expertise, and how they can build relationships. 
  • We might also observe how people carry out tasks, and we can use this as a way of seeing the strengths they can put into use, and where they appear weaker. This can be done in a real-life situation, or through a simulation. 
  • We might ask other people who have worked with them in different settings to get a fuller picture of their strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Discussions are another way to explore strengths and weaknesses. This is the method used most often by companies when they are recruiting and often asks people for examples or reflections to help build up a picture of an individual.
  • Qualifications or certificates are a final way of identifying skills and knowledge and are particularly crucial for some technical skills where real expertise is involved, or where there is danger if mistakes are made. 

Remember, there is no perfect way of understanding someone’s strengths and weaknesses because they are not always the same, and different situations will draw on them differently.

3. Mentorship

Mentorship is a leadership skill where one person provides advice or guidance to another, normally based on their higher level of skill, knowledge, experience or networks. It is a way for line managers to provide support to their direct reports, and use their resources to support them.

Sometimes, you might manage people with varied workloads, and some of the areas they need support in might be beyond your own area of expertise. If you can’t mentor them yourself, your role could become finding another colleague with the right knowledge, skills or experience to mentor them informally instead. 

When mentoring works well, it can be a powerful tool which has benefits both to the mentee and to the mentor too. Some important things for this particular leadership skill to work effectively are:

  • That the mentor and mentee get on with each other, and can have a positive relationship.
  • That the expectations of both are clear and understood by each other – what they think the purpose and focus should be, how long the relationship will last, and agreed norms of how they will communicate. 
  • That both respect each other’s time and the expertise and efforts of the other.

In most organisations, personnel development is a key priority so the business can ensure that the employees have the skills necessary to fulfil their role effectively. It also ensures that employees continue to learn and develop the skills necessary to further their careers. The success of skills development in the workplace is based on employees being able to mentor and develop each other. With expertise at this aspect of leadership, you will be in a position to mentor and develop others, both in and outside of your own team.

4. Coaching

Coaching is about supporting another individual to achieve their potential. The coach is not expected to provide the answer – indeed, they might not even know the correct answer themselves. Instead, their role is to act as a ‘sounding board’ to support the individual to explore ideas for themselves and work through a problem to get to a solution. 

This means that they do not necessarily have to be an expert in the field, although that can be helpful in supporting someone to reach a technical solution. Instead, their expertise lies in facilitating the other person to structure their thinking. 

Coaching can be a useful and effective leadership tool, but there need to be certain things in place before it can achieve that potential:

  • A shared understanding of the goal that is to be achieved.
  • An appreciation of the role of the coach, and how it differs to that of a mentor.
  • A positive, respectful working relationship where the incentives of the coach and the individual being coached are aligned.

An effective coach has to be a great listener. That is because the most critical tool that a coach has is good questioning. The coach can use a careful sequence of open questions to open up and explore a topic, and then encourage the individual towards taking action. An effective coach uses listening tools along the way like:

Ultimately, to be a good coach, you take the other individual on a journey from uncertainly exploring their idea, through evaluating their thoughts, through to a commitment to action.

Coaching is such a powerful leadership tool for line managers because they cannot be expected to know the answer to every possible question. Equally, there is good evidence that individuals who develop their own ideas have a much greater sense of ownership over the solutions and ideas that they have generated. This means they are more motivated to implement those ideas, and tend to need less oversight and direct management.

Coaching in the workplace is an important mechanism used to improve someone’s performance in their role. An individual can be supported, through coaching, to either improve a current skill or learn a new skill. Good coaching can lead to an improvement in business results, in addition team communications, staff well-being and loyalty can also be enhanced.

5. Motivation

Motivation is the drive that someone feels to commit energy and effort to completing tasks, in the expectation of some future benefit. An effective line manager will think hard about how to keep their team motivated, even through difficult times. There are four things that underpin being able to demonstrate motivational leadership:

1. Understand your team, know them, and what excites them.

  • Getting to know their team: It is powerful to get to know your team as individuals, and to understand their individual strengths as well as their wider interests.
  • Spending time to support them: Making time available to support them is a good sign that you consider them worth your time, and that you value them. 
  • Finding out what excites them about their role: It may not be obvious what it is that excites people day-to-day, but if you find this out you can help to ensure that they have plenty of opportunities to do what does.

2. Provide the resources, tools and training for success.

  • Finding out what team members need from you: Many managers make the mistake of thinking leadership is about getting people to do whatever you want. In reality, successful managers think more about how to support and help their teams.
  • Providing the resources they need: It is demoralising and demotivating if individuals don’t have the resources they need to get the job done. As their line manager, you are best-placed to help secure these resources. ‍
  • Seeking the right training and development opportunities: Individuals want to feel that they can do more tomorrow than they can today, so helping them to find the best development opportunities and chances to try something new are vital.

3. Recognise success and support through challenges.

  • Praising individuals for hard work and achievements: Everyone likes to feel that they are recognised for good work and to feel that their efforts are appreciated. The line manager has a key role in providing this praise and support.  
  • Recognising individuals in front of their peers: It can also be meaningful and motivating for the work of individuals to be recognised more widely, including in front of their peers. ‍
  • Providing appropriate rewards: Traditionally, having the right rewards was thought of as being the most important thing to motivate people. Nowadays, rewards are seen as being more of a minimum requirement (or hygiene factor) – so long as the reward is good enough, then it is not that motivating beyond that level.

4. Ensure a sense of shared endeavour.

  • Involving the team in decision making: In other steps, the idea of involving people in decision-making, problem solving, and creative thinking has been highlighted as a route to get people more invested in achieving the solution. If you can involve your team in the decision-making process, they will feel greater ownership of the solution, and so will be more motivated to achieve it. 
  • Working through problems together: Where problems emerge, it is unhelpful for individuals to feel that they cannot talk to a line manager about it, but equally unhelpful if they feel they can just hand over the problem for someone else to fix it for them. Working together through problems helps to maintain that motivating sense of ownership and shared endeavour.‍
  • Demonstrating trust: Finally, demonstrating trust is motivating as it helps people to know that they have real responsibility and that their line manager believes that they can complete the tasks well.

When those in positions of leadership ensure that motivation amongst employees is high, the business is more likely to achieve these goals. Motivated employees can lead to greater productivity and so enable the business to achieve higher levels of output. Motivated employees are more efficient in the workplace as they tend to be more committed and have greater job satisfaction. Employee turnover is reduced when employees are motivated, as employees are more likely to stay in their roles when they can see the purpose of their work and their endeavours are recognised and supported.

To find out more about this essential skill, visit the Skills Builder Universal Framework for leadership

To explore how Skills Builder could support you to embed skills across your organisation, including in your staff development practices, explore our Employer programme.