The line management conundrum – let’s hug and not squeeze our line managers

Blog posts

27 Feb 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

I would like to introduce you to Martin. 

Martin was technically very capable in his role, and was promoted to a new position last year. This new position meant he gained line management responsibility for five individuals in his team as well as being the main specialist in his area, often having to troubleshoot issues when they arise.  Martin had never had responsibility for managing people before, but accepted this responsibility in good faith. However, Martin didn’t really understand all the tasks that line managers had to undertake, wasn’t provided with any training and soon felt very squeezed both in the number of duties he had and the time he had to do them.

Although he was very personable, in times of stress, Martin found it very difficult to motivate and manage those he had responsibility for, and was concerned that he may be missing signs of poor wellbeing within his team. He reported that when his workload was busy, the time he had to dedicate to providing on-going performance management, development and issues like grievances and attendance could slip, and that he felt constrained by senior management with the continuous pressure to report on targets and maintain budgets.  Martin reported feeling fatigued and stressed, and worried that this was having a negative impact on those he managed.

In this scenario Martin is fictional, but for many line managers the situation I'm describing is very real. 

The phrase ‘people join an organisation and leave a manager’ still echoes true in 2020.  Weakness in management capability means that organisations may not be reaching their full potential, and may lose good quality employees who feel undervalued and under-invested in.  At this time when mental-health related sickness absence is one of the main reasons for time off work, and with productivity levels in the UK remaining stubbornly low, maybe it is time that we started to take the quality of line management seriously. 

There is now a consistent evidence base suggesting that good line management is good for business.  Bloom and Van Reenan have undertaken economic studies showing that management capability is a key determinant in organisational performance, and Dame Carol Black has often discussed the pivotal role that line managers have in improving workplace wellbeing.

However, and this is where the conundrum lies, are organisations providing line managers with the support they need given all the responsibilities they have to undertake? Too many organisations are metaphorically squeezing line managers from a number of directions:

They can feel pressure from those who directly report to them who need support, feedback, coaching, motivation and performance monitoring.  This requires the use of ‘soft skills’ and the management of expectations can be both emotionally and practically damaging.

  • Senior managers can be a source of pressure – line managers are expected to bring ‘policies to life’, set targets and maintain organisational standards.
  • Line managers have an increased role in the implementation and delivery of HR practices: performance management, rewards, learning and development discussions, appraisals, agreeing training needs (the list continues).
  • Other organisational tasks include implementing discipline and grievance procedures, budgetary responsibilities, career development.
  • They may also face pressures from external clients, needing to maintain a suitable level of customer or client satisfaction, present a positive brand, be aware of competition…

….and they also may have what many consider their day job – especially if they have distinctive professional or technical expertise.

Yet at the same time, organisations are not sufficiently equipping line managers with the skills and tools they need for their role. Research by the CIPD has suggested that 40 per cent of organisations reported inadequate training of line managers, and 26 per cent of organisations do not prioritise line management training. 

But just rectifying this ‘training gap’ is not going solve the problem by itself.  There is still a ‘bandwidth’ problem - the requirement to perform a growing list of tasks with a correspondingly reduced time ‘window’ or the support from the organisation to complete them effectively. As a result, many line managers report feeling ‘dumped upon’.  As a quick fix, line managers may just prioritise the tasks they get measured on or rewarded for, letting the more complex and time consuming ‘people management’ duties fall to the wayside. 

And let’s not forget the health and wellbeing of the line manager – how are they coping with the stress and work overload often associated with increased line management activities?  Recent research has suggested that employees managed by line managers with poor physical and psychological health also reported having poor health.  So, equipping line managers with the skills to cope with their stress and workload is also important for improving the productivity and wellbeing of the employees who report to them.

So what should organisations do?

Concerns regarding line management effectiveness have centred around three main factors: their lack of skills and knowledge about the roles they do, competing priorities around workload and a lack of commitment and support around their people management responsibilities.

I would argue that organisations need to recognise that ‘good line management’ matters – and how employees are managed is crucial to sustained organisational success.    

More thought may need to be given to how line managers are recruited or promoted (taking into account both personal and technical competencies). Employers need to be very clear about good line management skills and what good behaviour in an organisation should look like, and provide appropriate support to managers to obtain and develop these. 

IES has previously undertaken research into the competencies that best describe ‘engaging managers’, and it may be important for line managers to understand what behaviours they currently demonstrate at work, and make them aware of the areas which might need development.  If managers know the areas in which they are strongest and which behaviours can be improved with the least effort, this could improve managerial good practice.

Finally, and maybe most importantly – organisations do have a real challenge here, and there is a real imperative that they get this right, which is why IES is keen to undertake more research in this important area. But, for now, let’s stop squeezing our managers so much they can’t effectively manage – maybe, just maybe, let’s hug them and thank them instead.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.