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Upping your interpersonal skills

Sue Weekes

Interpersonal skills at the office

While it’s vital to be able to do the practical parts of a managers’ job, focus has shifted in recent years to improving interpersonal skills among managers. Sue Weekes asks how you can build your own

Interpersonal skills are so fundamental to a manager’s everyday job that to highlight their importance seems almost surplus to requirements. Even though they are employed in a manager’s routine tasks when supporting, motivating and leading their team, it seems that in many cases these skillsets are far less polished than they should be. According to a recent report by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), many managers are falling down in areas such as delivering feedback and coaching and supporting staff even though they believe they are being effective in their role.

Beyond the Bonus: driving employee performance set out to discover how effective UK organisations are at motivating their employees with particular reference to financial incentives and productivity. Salary (and pension) actually comes second to enjoyment of the job as a motivational factor while the quality of their relationship with the team and colleagues is ranked third. When asked what single thing would motivate them to do more, one third (31%) of respondents suggested better treatment by their employer, including more praise and a sense of being valued. Overall, the research showed that recognition, non-financial reward and support and feedback, all of which rely on the manager having good interpersonal skills, are considered to be highly motivational and desired by employees.

Worryingly, the report reveals significant perception gaps between how a manager believes he or she is performing in their role and what the team feels. Four out of five (82%) managers claim that their staff know exactly what is expected of them and how their performance is assessed while 84% believe they get on really well with their teams. Employees see things differently though: only three in five (58%) say they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are assessed and similarly 61% that they get on with their manager. Appraisals are also suffering with a quarter of respondents saying they are poorly performed by their manager. When it comes to giving general feedback, there is another perception gap: seven in ten (69%) managers say they are “always giving feedback” while only a quarter (23%) of employees agree with them.

Improving your interpersonal skills

It is clear from the research that many managers need to improve their interpersonal skills if they are to perform effectively in their role. Interpersonal skills are those which we all use to communicate, interact and relate to other people. They include verbal and non-verbal communication as well as the ability to listen meaningfully and are required for core management tasks such as delegation, negotiation, coaching, providing feedback, giving an appraisal and problem-solving. Mark Hodgson, practice leader at talent and career management firm, Right Management, believes interpersonal skills fundamentally shape how a manager approaches their job and are vastly under-estimated. “To deliver world-class levels of innovation, performance and productivity, you need to engage and inspire people,” he says. “That puts interpersonal skills are the heart of business improvement and business development. Going further, many managers are totally unaware of the impact they are having on the bottom line because of the way they interface with people.”


Just 23% of employees say their manager is 'always giving feedback'

Hodgson says that the power of having a finely tuned interpersonal skill-set is that managers can have open and honest conversations with their team, as well as develop and deliver a supportive coaching and development culture and mindset. At the moment, the ILM research indicates many managers are ill-equipped to achieve this: although the vast majority (88%) claim they coach and support staff, less than half (46%) of employees agree with them. Furthermore, although the same percentage of managers believe they treat staff well and encourage them to put forward ideas, only 47% of employees felt well treated and encouraged to contribute.

Melody Moore, consultant at management consultancy the Hay Group, reckons managers tend to focus on their technical skills and see interpersonal skills “as the soft stuff” when in reality the ability to coach, give feedback and develop teams is the hard stuff. “It requires managers to focus on people not task, and to invest time and energy in understanding their team members,” she explains. “It’s difficult because people are complex, therefore managers may prefer to focus on things that appear less complex and unpredictable, such as tasks.”
Indeed, many managers place all their emphasis on the task and the goal at the expense of exploring how the team will get there and managing the relationships and emotions inside of it. “It’s the age-old argument of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’,” says Hodgson. “People need to be really clear from a behavioural perspective of what’s expected of them and those behaviours need to be understood, reinforced and role modelled by managers.”

As the perception gaps in the research amply demonstrates, there is a complete lack of self-awareness from many managers regarding their abilities and the impact they have on their team. Hodgson says the challenge is making managers realise that they need to “hold a mirror up to themselves” to better understand their own strengths and blind-spots. Moore agrees and believes that management training often overlooks the importance of this. "There are plenty of courses aiming to develop specific managerial skills, however, they tend to be too simplistic and focus on the surface, behavioural level rather than helping managers become more self-aware,” she says. “Developing self-awareness will help managers understand themselves and their team members better; this will improve skills such as coaching and providing feedback.”

Doubtless the faceless nature of email and social media has played a part in eroding these vital interpersonal skills and it is important that managers, HR and all employers place a renewed premium on the development of them. As Hodgson states, “you can’t inspire by email” and it is only through face-to-face communication that you can truly involve and engage people. He adds: “You need a dialogue to show that you are listening and that opinions are being heard.”

As the ILM research shows, giving employees a voice and ensuring they feel valued is one of the most motivational acts that a manager can perform and it doesn’t require a budget to achieve it but rather a honed set of interpersonal skills.

Guide to giving good feedback

  1. Prepare what you are going to say in advance and make sure you have evidence to back up any criticism.
  2. Make sure the feedback is balanced and constructive and not judgemental.
  3. Listen to what the employee is saying and let them know their voice is being heard.
  4. Deliver feedback regularly and when appropriate rather than saving it up for the annual appraisal.
  5. Consider what impact the feedback will have on the individual. Make sure it has a positive effect and arrange a follow-up meeting to discuss outcomes.


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