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Job descriptions for managers need to change. Science tells us how

Former Googler and cofounder of Humu explains the disconnect between what employees say they need and what managers are trained to provide.

Job descriptions for managers need to change. Science tells us how
[Photos: Laura Chouette/Unsplash; ?Bonneval Sebastien/Unsplash; Louise Viallesoubranne/Unsplash]

The concept of “management” in the workplace has taken on new significance in the aftermath of the last two years. While managers have traditionally focused on overseeing teams and projects to ensure work is completed properly and on time, the people-focused elements of the job have become more important than ever.  

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Employees across experience levels and industries have struggled to balance work with the challenges and obligations of everyday life during the pandemic, and what they need from a manager to be successful has evolved as a result. Employees who manage others have also struggled with these issues, both on a personal and professional level, as they seek to do their own best work while supporting their people during an uncertain time.  

As the cofounder and head of People Science at Humu, and a former member of the Google team that invented People Analytics, I’ve seen the disconnect between what employees say they need and what managers are trained to provide come through in our data. Based on our proprietary research, here’s how the job description of a manager needs to change in the next phase of work. 

Require high emotional intelligence

Bringing out the best in an employee requires understanding who they are as an individual. This has always been true, but against the backdrop of a period of significant loss and hardship for many, tapping into the human side of leadership has become critical. Employees’ expectations have also shifted significantly, and they are increasingly seeking out opportunities that give them flexibility, autonomy, and balance.  

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Creating the cultural conditions to support these employee needs requires managers with high emotional intelligence. People manager job descriptions should call out those skills specifically, emphasizing their importance for success in the role. For example, a list of job responsibilities for a manager should always include something like “Build an inclusive and psychologically safe team environment, in which team members feel supported and heard.”  

Management is about more than deliverables. It’s about how a leader supports a direct report or team during the journey in between deadlines. The best managers care about their team’s experience and how they get their work done, not just the output. If work gets done on time, but with questionable quality, that signals a need to check in on how engaged the team is on a project, or whether someone has a heavier workload than they can manage. If a high-performing employee or team begins to struggle, managers need to be able to spot the signs and take action to address inter- or intra-team conflict or personal stressors that can impact performance. 

End the “Think manager–think male” paradigm

Management has traditionally been stereotypically associated with, and has rewarded, traits that are perceived as “masculine,” while treating soft skills as more “feminine” extras rather than a core element of good leadership. Both men and managers have stereotypically been perceived as “objective,” “assertive,” “driven,” and “authoritative.” These characteristics have been viewed as “standard” management skills because they imply the ability to accomplish tasks, and are necessary for ensuring a team meets deadlines and adheres to quality standards.  

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By contrast, words stereotypically used to describe women include “emotional,” “intuitive,” “nurturing,” and “sensitive.” While these traits haven’t historically been thought of as aligned with management in the way the others have, and these perceptions have unfairly held women back at work in the past, there is no denying their value in the modern workplace. These traits align with crucial skills for managers, including showing empathy when someone is going through a rough time, creating psychological safety, and actively supporting employee career development.  

Placing a higher value on these skills in the management function improves team dynamics, retention, and performance. It also unlocks new opportunities for budding leaders whose expertise may have been overlooked in the past due to bias. This shift also requires new skill-building for managers who thrived using previous leadership models that no longer meet employee needs in a changing environment. 

Rethink the project manager to people manager pipeline

People who are promoted or hired into management roles typically have demonstrated success as individual contributors or successful project managers, but that doesn’t automatically make them good people managers.  

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Pushing high performers toward people management without accounting for the emotional intelligence needed to be a well-rounded manager can backfire, leaving the entire team unhappy. If it seems like the only way to move up in an organization is to take on a direct report, employees may end up with an ineffective manager unwilling or unprepared to support their professional development. That doesn’t make the manager a bad person, but it does point to the need for leaders to create alternate career paths to advancement for people who are talented, but not excited about people management. 

This career path mismatch can get expensive. Bad managers cost the U.S. economy $360 billion per year in the form of lost productivity and employee attrition. Nearly two thirds (65%) of employees value a good manager over a pay raise, and 70% of the variation in employee engagement can be attributed to manager effectiveness. To avoid bringing on a disengaged manager, leaders should clearly delineate in job descriptions which roles require a genuine interest in people management and which involve manager-level strategic thinking, but no direct reports.  

Emphasize a growth mindset

Manager job descriptions also need to emphasize the importance of a growth mindset for candidates and new hires. While this mindset is now taught in many schools, it’s a newer concept for many in middle management. The perception that managers are automatically high performers with a strong grasp on their work can hinder career evolution both for the manager and for direct reports. In the workplace, a growth mindset involves acknowledging room for improvement, actively seeking feedback from above and below, and making noticeable progress.  

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Our data show that, even when managers are newer to the role or feel like they’re having a hard time, employees are still willing to give them grace if it’s clear they are trying to improve. Employees who notice their manager taking action on behavioral nudges through Humu’s platform are 16% happier than their peers. By contrast, if direct reports feel their manager is treating their development as a check-the-box process with no real effort or desire for improvement, that will negatively impact their perception of their manager’s performance.   

Reinvent organizational support for managers

Managers are busier than ever, so finding low-effort ways to reinforce good people management habits is key. Rather than scramble to build a 1:1 agenda five minutes before meeting with a direct report, managers can use calendar reminders and dedicated direct report notes to prepare ahead of time. Managers with multiple direct reports should make it a point to ask about (and remember!) small details about their people, whether that’s the name of their kids or pets, or a hobby they do outside of work. 

Dedicating time to these smaller management habits helps build stronger relationships and more effective teams over time. Our most recent research shows that the emotional and interpersonal aspects of management (e.g., showing recognition and cultivating psychological safety) have a much larger impact on employee retention than the more traditional responsibilities of a manager, like setting goals or establishing clear structure. Giving managers a small, well-timed reminder to ask how they can best support a report in an upcoming 1:1, or to kick team meetings off with a quick team check-in, have been scientifically shown to improve manager effectiveness and help organizations hold onto top talent. Given the increasing number of tasks falling on people managers, prioritizing these best practices may mean leaders need to consider reducing manager workloads to allow more time and space for direct report support.  

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The role of the manager has fundamentally evolved in the last few years, and it’s past time for leaders to make sure their job descriptions and cultural practices meet the moment. By following the data, providing the right support, and reconsidering assumptions about what makes someone a successful people manager, organizations can develop happier, more effective leaders and teams.  


Jessica Wisdom PhD, is the cofounder and head of People Science at Humu.


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