Manager development: Evolution of what it means to manage

The last decade has seen huge changes in the workplace. This was already influencing the role of managers but nothing could have prepared them or any of us for the seismic and exponential changes enforced over the past few weeks as organisations try to adapt to the new world order brought about by COVID-19.

Managers in particular must adjust and evolve ways of working to meet completely novel needs of both the external and internal customer (the employees). And, as a result, their role manager development will have to further transform.

The task at hand

With the multiple generations now making up the workplace, managers may have teams made up of individuals with very different expectations and needs. Add to this, individuals working style preferences, openness to change, and varying levels of resilience during a global health crisis wherein many are suddenly forced into isolation and expected to work remotely; managers are currently being tested as never before.
It’s essential that managers are supported as they are pivotal to organisational outcomes. You see, managers’ own behaviours are one of the most influential factors in determining the success of a teams. Not only can they have a marked impact on performance, employee wellbeing and team dynamics but also on retention (we all know the mantra “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”).

In light of all this, we reflected on trends data we’ve collected since 2013 and asked how has managers’ performance changed with the evolving workplace? How different are employees’ perceptions of their managers? Is this due to changing expectations or other factors? How different could this picture be in the coming weeks and months?

Then and Now

To identify skills gaps, we look to employee survey results, aggregate trends across our 360-degree feedback data, and our extensive benchmark database. Our benchmark provides insights and historical comparisons that truly highlight how managers’ roles are changing. The key trends we have identified are around the three following themes:

1. Autonomy and trust
2. Feedback
3. Resilience and employee wellbeing

Autonomy and trust

Many changes in this respect have been employee led and are rooted in adapting ways of working to suit differing needs. This is reflected in the data, which shows managers being steadily more open to employees’ ideas and suggestions for change.

2020 manager trends report single bar graph

One such example is likely the uplift in remote and flexible working options being introduced in many organisations in response to employees’ circumstances, care responsibilities or preferences.

But for managers this naturally poses new challenges such as engaging and leading a team from afar, maintaining lines of communication, and ensuring their remote/dispersed teams are still collaborating and working towards shared objectives. It’s perhaps not surprising then to see a drop off in how well employees feel their manager communicates with them (79% in 2019 vs 84% favourable in 2013).

Elsewhere there’s been a shift in leadership styles with traditional ‘command and control’ becoming less prevalent (or effective) and being replaced by a transformational, more collaborative and empowering style. Accounting for the importance of trust and autonomy, this is something we reflected in our surveys with the introduction of two empowerment questions:

“Given the current explosion of employees working remotely as well as the fact that organisations are now undergoing unprecedented change and uncertainty, it’s crucial to that lines of communication stay open but also that managers put their trust in teams to work in these new ways.”


Another area that has seen shifts in manager behaviour is in determining the feedback culture within their teams. It is no longer seen that managers are to provide feedback to direct reports (though 360 degree feedback data often reveals this remains a development area for many). A manager must also ensure they are open to, encourage and take on board upwards feedback from their direct reports.

Furthermore, managers today must also be mindful of their delivery styles and adapt the way they provide feedback based on individuals’ needs and preferences.

The data below shows that it is an area where managers seem to be improving, certainly in terms of their encouraging feedback upwards.

“This is a specialist area for us and we have implemented feedback training for managers across many of our clients aimed at increasing the frequency and quality of feedback conversations they have, and showing them the value of upwards feedback and how to encourage it.”

2020 manager trends report multiple bar graphs

Resilience and employee wellbeing

The role managers play in maintaining and promoting employee wellbeing within organisations has really shifted. Indeed our benchmark trend data reveals:
2020 manager trends report pyramid graphs

“Today’s managers must recognise their responsibility for supporting team members, they need to acknowledge that they have a direct impact on employees’ stress levels and understand that resilience can be developed.”

In the face of such adversity as the current COVID-19 pandemic, this pastoral responsibility from managers has never been more pressing or needed on such a scale. This is the ultimate ‘acid test’ of resilience and coping under stressful conditions.

What we need is for managers to step up and consider ways they can provide reassurance and emotional support to their team, maintain morale and, as much as possible, promote employee health – albeit from a distance in most cases. It’s heartening then that our benchmark shows that 91% of employees report that their manager speaks up and challenges the norm in order to do the right thing.

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