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4 essential self-management skills to develop within your team

The best employees are the ones who manage themselves. How do you optimize for this? Here are the 4 self-management skills to hire for and develop internally within your team.

Self management skills

The best team members you’ve ever worked with likely had one thing in common:  Strong self-management skills. As a manager, you don’t want to be pulled into double-checking every detail of a project, or answering minute questions incessantly. After all, you have your own responsibilities to focus on. 

As a result, when hiring and training your team, you’ll want to pay attention to your potential team member’s self-management skills. Are they, as the founders of Basecamp described, “managers of one”? 

Here at Know Your Team, self-management skills one of the top things we hire for and strive to develop internally, ourselves. I noticed this immediately when I myself joined as our Operations Manager.

Based on our own experience of hiring folks, and the experience of 1,000+ managers in our online leadership community, The Watercooler, here are the four most important self-management skills that we look out for and continually hone within our own team.

Skill #1:  Do they know what to work on first?

One of the most important self-management skills a team member can enact is how they manage their time. In particular, this means they internalize priorities well, and know precisely what to work on first. Your team can only make strong progress if everyone is each working on what is most important for the team, in any given moment. An employee with strong self-management skills can discern which activities should happen “now” or “later.” They can decide that one task can be afforded to be done quickly, while another task requires more significant attention. 

Do keep in mind though, as a manager, it’s your responsibility to share information with your team about company vision and progress so that they have a frame for what to work on first. Otherwise, you leave even the person with the strongest self-management skills out to dry. (We in fact have a Guide to Sharing Info In a Team in Know Your Team if you were interested in learning more on how to do this well.)

Personally, I use our Heartbeats Tool in Know Your Team to share not only what I accomplished yesterday, but also my intentions for the current day. I also like to prioritize things from top to bottom, and in the order that I intend to work. In this sense, I answer the 

These Heartbeat check-ins are visible by our entire team. Here is an example:

Skill #2:  Can they give an answer when there is no answer?

Sometimes, an employee is going to have to make the call. Perhaps you, as the manager, are out on vacation or out of the office for part of the day. Or perhaps it’s a decision that an employee should be making, as it’s within their domain.  In most situations, that shouldn’t require your direct report to call you on the phone or seek your approval:  They should be able to come up with an answer, even when there is no answer. Effective self-management skills call for confident decision-making. Your team should become comfortable with your company’s mission, vision, and values and know how to respond to situations accordingly. 

Recently I read the book, The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker, and shared a summary of each chapter with our Watercooler community for our Leadership Book Club. In it, decision-making was frequently discussed as an important tenet self-management. And specifically, the ability to include a variety of opinions (and your opinions!) in making sound decisions. Drucker in fact recommends to not start with fact – start with opinions. When you lay out opinions, you can then work backwards to figure out what all the potential courses of action could be, before then settling on the best decision.

This ability to think decisions through on their own, from all angles, should be something to seek out in your team members – or teach them 🙂

Skill #3:  How do they react under pressure?

An employee can only prioritize tasks and make good decisions if they’re able to manage their own stress, to begin with. Someone who has a propensity for angry outbursts – or perhaps worse, doesn’t speak up when they’re overwhelmed – will only hurt the rest of the team disproportionately. 

Ideally, you want to hire someone who is self-aware enough to understand how stress affects them. Stress affects all of us – none of us are immune to it. And it all affects us differently, to varying degrees.

For myself, frankly speaking, I know I have a tendency to be a bit stressed out more than most. So, I’ve had to develop my own self-management skill around managing this pressure better.  For example, I’m currently reading No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, as part of our Watercooler Book Club, and a concept they espouse that I’ve put into practice is to stop feeling bad about feeling bad. Don’t blame yourself for being stressed out and/or not being happy all the time. 

They write:

“A better version of the familiar adage “Grin and bear it” may be “Sometimes you have to bear it, but you shouldn’t force yourself to grin.”

So yes, people are going to have to deal with stress at work, but seeking out team members who understand how to pause, reflect, and calibrate their own reaction in a stressful situation is imperative. 

For myself, when I feel stressed out, I take a time out. This could mean getting up and taking a walk, switching my focus to a household chore, or even abandoning a work task all-together until the next day when I feel more clear-headed and fresh, especially when it comes to writing.

Figure out how your team members should be handling stress – and lend a helping hand.

Skill #4:  How proactive and thorough are they about solving problems?

Whether problems are technical in nature or interpersonal, an employee with strong self-management skills takes it upon themselves to solve them. At the end of the day, you as a manager should be the ones solving problems – you should simply be creating an environment for your team to solve problems on their own. 

As you interview, hire, onboard, and train your team, you’ll want to make sure your team member is both proactive and thorough in solving problems. Here are some questions to ask yourself as a manager – or to pose to your employees – around how to ensure they’re able to solve problems well:

  • Whose problem do they ultimately think it is? Are they owning it?
  • Do they define what success looks like?
  • Do they imagine worst case scenarios?
  • Do they identify what the relevant variables and levers are in the problem?
  • Do they ask questions often?
  • Do they seek out diverging opinions?
  • Do they understand the trade-offs involved?
  • Have they included and talked to all the stakeholders?
  • Have they considered what happens if they do nothing?
  • Do they have a back-up plan / alternative options?

In short, “problem-solving is important both to individuals and organizations because it enables us to exert control over our environment,” as stated by Wayne Strottler of Kepner-Tregoe, a company that has been helping companies hone their problem-solving skills for over 60 years says. You want your team member to have this ability to exert control over their own environment.

Effective time management and prioritization, confident decision-making, graceful stress management, and strong problem solving are the biggest self-management skills you should be looking for when building your team. Let your employees know that these skills are valued and part of why you hired them. It makes a world of difference for the individuals you hire to know these skills are valued by you as a leader, and it will drive them to maintain their self-management skills and keep them sharp. 

For myself, I know this from experience. Our CEO, Claire, has always been vocal about strengthening our self-management skills and being “managers” of one – and her thoughtfully expressing it, motivates me to be the best employee I can be.

You can do the same for your team.

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