What is the impact of promoting high performers for their technical skills alone?

How often have you had a manager that you considered ‘not very good with people’? And have you ever wanted to talk to a manager about something, but found them unapproachable? At Mental Health at Work, we often hear comments such as these in our work to help businesses to manage mental health in the workplace more effectively, part of which involves helping managers and business leaders with the skills to engage more authentically with their colleagues.

Jonathan Naess, Head of Partnerships and Sara Brewer, Associate Trainer with Mental Health at Work, are highly experienced in the corporate environment, and acknowledge that work pressure, high performance and long hours are the norm.  Discussing the issue of how to manage someone who is struggling at work, they agree that a less skilled manager will often try to quickly ‘manage someone out’ of their role, without trying to help them first. Sara suggests companies need to recognise a person’s people skills together with their technical skills when promoting someone to management:

“As we get very good technically, we are rewarded with a team to manage, but don’t always develop the skills we need to actually be a really good and effective manager. And then we start to talk about the difficult conversations we need to have as a manager, as opposed to having effective management conversations.”

Jonathan Naess, an ex-corporate lawyer, is passionate about being open about a person’s mental health well-being and uses the analogy of a partner in a law firm being very similar to an oil well, as an expensive asset, he says:

“If there was a problem with an oil-well, you wouldn’t ignore it, you’d fix it and ensure it continued producing. From this, we can make a very compelling business case on the impact to that business of the cost of a compromise agreement, rather than supporting a person, and to realise that people can recover from an illness and move on.”

So, what can a company do to help an employee who is struggling with their mental health? Dealing with the misconception that people can’t recover from mental illness is key. There are steps an organisation can take, insists Sara, in dealing with their most important asset, human talent:

“We take individuals in, we absolutely sap everything out of them, and when it gets tough – which it does, because that’s life – we don’t support people.  We will take what we need from this amazing human asset and then we all too easily discard with their services. In my experience, knowing and supporting an individual to deliver the role you need them to, isn’t difficult or expensive if you do it in the right way.  Compromising them out is very, very expensive and unsustainable in the long term. It’s not good for organisations or people, but we often don’t consider an alternative approach.”

Sara recommends introducing more of a feedback culture, and less of an appraisal culture in the workplace, describing annual appraisals as something “everybody hates, like a rabbit in the headlights”. She says if you are able as a manager to have a conversation, open a dialogue on an ongoing basis, a person may talk openly and remain in work.”

Jonathan summarises the way Mental Health at Work can help an organisation manage their employees’ well-being:

“Communication and culture is precious to you in an organisation. At Mental Health at Work we’re not going to change your culture, but we do want to help you change it around approaches to mental health, and consider the very likely costs associated with doing nothing. Mental health can be a barrier to getting things right, and we all need to be clear that talking about mental health does not make the problem worse.”

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