7 Top Tips for Managing Line Managers

Posted in : HR Updates on 13 December 2016
Matthew Hamilton
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

Seven things to give your line managers this Christmas; not exactly seven swans swimming…

Are your line managers happy, capable, engaged, supported and, more importantly, will they still be in 2017?

This year has seen some incredible scrutiny over the role of the line manager, and rightly so.  The line manager’s role is an essential position in terms of managing performance, inspiring teams, retaining talent and driving the business towards success.  Line managers are now dealing with more complex and interrelated people management issues on a daily basis than ever before; increasing instances mental ill health being just one of many new challenges for this group of front line leaders as highlighted by the CIPD in 2016.  

In the last 12 months, we have seen a number of high-profile discrimination and harassment cases, concerns relating to working time regulations, the abuse of zero-hour workers, changes to parental rights, the administration of shared parental leave and holiday pay and what constitutes ‘normal’ remuneration.  The people management sphere is ever changing as are the expectations of the line management role.  It would seem that we are asking more of our line managers regardless of the type or size of business and this is something that we HR practitioners have supported for some time.

For me, the question remains, are we supporting and enabling our managers to take on these additional challenges or are organisations slowly walking towards some kind of line management level burnout?  

If this is the case what can senior leaders and HR professionals do this Christmas to make sure our line managers remain supported, valued, resilient – and more importantly, come back in 2017?!

1. Put development at the heart of the role

Often seen by organisations and indeed some line managers as a distraction or an inconvenience, training and continued professional development should be a core and essential part of the line management role.  The organisation supported by the HR function are obligated to challenge mindsets that view training and development as time “out” of the workplace or a drain on the line manager’s operational capacity. 

Through continued development, we can improve line managers’ competence and confidence in managing absence, performance, conduct and capability issues within their teams.  In addition, we should be informing our line managers about changes to legislation that may impact the way they need to implement policies and procedures. 

Often when employment laws change, time is required to update policies and procedures, but management should still be notified of these developments and should be acting accordingly to avoid issues arising.  We need to ensure that appropriate time is and continues to be allocated to management learning and development.

2. Mentor for success

A 2014 CIPD study indicated that mentoring was one of the latest ways organisations were developing and enhancing the abilities of their management teams.  This method of supported direction to build competence, problem-solving and management style is no less a requirement now than it was then. 

Mentoring is also a valuable tool that, when deployed for the purposes of front line managers either with an internal or external mentor, allows managers develop their own abilities with the encouragement, support and guidance of someone who can share their own experiences. 

As mentoring is often engaged for a longer period of time than coaching, it is possible for this professional relationship to add real value, both personally and professionally for the line manager and for the organisation as a whole. 

Where mentoring is being considered, I would encourage any organisation to think about who in the organisation would have the desire and necessary skills to become a mentor for front line managers.  It can also be a helpful tool in supporting organisations with effective succession planning, ensuring that organisations are retaining talented managers to take up the reins when the time comes.  Often senior leaders who are potentially retiring are happy to move into this type of mentoring role coming up to their retirement date – why not formalise this process and make it part of the organisational ‘norm’?

3. Encourage mindfulness and develop resilience

More business leaders are discovering the value of practising mindfulness, both in their professional and personal lives.  Encouraging managers to raise their own self-awareness can have huge benefits, not just for the staff teams or the organisation but also for the line manager themselves. 

Increased awareness can help managers to gauge their own levels of stress and anxiety, helping them to manage workplace pressures and support their own professional resilience.  In encouraging mindfulness in the workplace there is also a recognition and acceptance on the part of senior leaders and the business as a whole that line managers are also people, susceptible to periods of ill health, exhaustion and fatigue like all of us.

Training and professional development will also support increased self-awareness, especially in relation to self-identification of limitations in experience and knowledge.

4. Allow greater Autonomy

Many commentators have highlighted the importance of autonomy in ensuring high levels of engagement, motivation and retention.  Line managers are no different and in many organisations line managers have very limited scope over operational practice. 

I would argue that where the business leadership have clearly communicated the vision, objectives and challenges facing that organisation that managers should be encouraged to use their best judgement to make the right operational decisions.  Organisations should consider what barriers managers may face in taking these decisions e.g., access to appropriate levels of business information.  What changes could be made to allow managers in your organisation to take these decisions confidently and on an informed basis? 

In addition, we should be supporting and encouraging managers to be more decisive when it comes to people management issues.  Often, I have encountered managers wanting to do the ‘right thing’ when it comes to a staffing issue, but are wary of kick-back from their own manager.   In these circumstances, I think knowledge and experience are key, and we should again be enabling managers to take these decisions rather than needlessly escalate them through a chain of command.  Encouraging managers to consider the long-term objectives when making operational or people decisions will move the focus from the short term and bottom line to outcomes to longer term objectives that will add real value to the organisation.

5. Give valuable performance feedback

I have read numerous articles over the past twelve months indicating the death of the performance appraisal process.  “Out with the old” I believe was the expression and “let’s move to a ‘real-time’ performance feedback system” was the proposal.  While I do not believe the (what I would argue is tried and tested) existing method of performance management is dead, I do think organisations need to evaluate how well this is being carried out, by line managers as well as senior leaders.  Some management teams may view the appraisal process as either a box ticking exercise that encourages no long-term gain for the person or the business, or merely a negotiation over a performance related bonus.  Both are absolutely the wrong message for any management team to hold. 

Real time feedback can certainly supplement the regular performance management process, and given that research has indicated the importance of “real-time” feedback for millennials, we need to recognise the benefits of a properly designed and implemented appraisal process.  Is this aligned to the business and do managers realise the benefits of effective feedback this when managing teams?

The most important part of this point is that, while we expect line managers to give feedback to teams and to carry out their performance appraisals, we often either fail to do these with our own line managers, or we fail to consider what real-time feedback we can be giving them.  Line managers equally require a carefully considered review of how well they have met their individual objectives, a discussion about their continued development and most importantly positive feedback and recognition when they’ve achieved success.

6. Support managers during difficult times

As I mentioned at the start of the article, all managers are human.  Managers are often at the coalface when it comes to the operations of a business and there are various pressures placed them to manage the work, the workplace and the people to achieve results.  It is therefore not surprising that line managers are often targets for vexatious complaints of bullying; especially where managers are taking an active role in implementing workplace changes to which many staff may be resistant.

In addition, managers are primarily those who are asked to engage in difficult people management activities, holding the difficult conversations about work performance, attendance, capability or conduct.   

Often when complaints are made, line management actions are immediately scrutinised, and on some occasions, the management responsibilities for that individual are removed before an investigation into the complaint has started.  Quite often managers are left in the dark pending the outcome of investigations or other formal activities causing an equal level of anxiety and distress for them. 

Given that no member of staff enjoys being moved through a formal process, we should treat our management team equally as supportively as we would a staff member raising a genuine concern.  We should give careful consideration before suspending any manager or removing responsibilities depending on the nature of the complaint and the evidence available.  Updating that manager and providing some assurance over the progression of any investigation is also vital, along with a careful consideration for additional support for that manager, including counselling, access to a mentor or an HR partner, a referral to occupational health or other workplace adjustments including additional management support. 

7. Turn you managers into Leaders

As the race to attract and retain talented people continues, we should never lose sight of the challenge of ensuring the organisation has an effective leadership development and succession planning pathway. 

Organisations should be actively reviewing their management competencies and pushing intermediate line management development to ensure there is a pool of capable leaders constantly under development.  How these future leaders are identified will vary depending on the organisation, however, while it may be difficult to offer constant career progression, there should be an opportunity to allow managers to develop in different areas and to understand every component of the business. 

It is also important to assess what skills and abilities can be developed over time, and which of those will be far more difficult to achieve improvement in the short term.  For example, while all managers will have a level of competence in communicating, research has shown the emotional intelligence is also a key competence to ensure communication is effective.  While you can develop a manager’s language skills, the emotional intelligence aspect is more complex and likely to take a significant period of time.  Therefore, organisations may need to assess managers based not just on technical ability, but also on other personal competencies such as self-motivation, self-awareness and ability to understand and reflect on one’s internal impulses and resources, empathy and social interaction. 

Appropriate use of various psychometric tools is a starting point for gaining this insight, however from that first step, identifying, developing, coaching and grooming that line manager for senior leadership is a lengthy and resource-intensive process

– probably best to pick that challenge up in the New Year.

This article is correct at 13/12/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Matthew Hamilton
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Matthew Hamilton. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email Matthew.Hamilton@thinkpeople.co.uk

View all articles by Matthew Hamilton