If organisations are structures in the broadest sense, line managers are the crucially important pillars that ensure their integrity. Less metaphorically, they are also critically significant in establishing workplace environments that enable investments in training and development to be turned into lasting performance improvement. Yet learning transfer practices that are focused around the activities of line managers are among the least frequently used: the organisational pillars are sitting on weak foundations. Supporting business growth depends on supporting the managers who enable its delivery.
When it comes to the expectations placed on line managers, other national commentators have also recently voiced concerns. CIPD recently reported that 36% of line managers have received no training for their role, and that task-oriented work is often prioritised at the expense of effective line management. So how can organisations do better by the managers on who they so crucially depend?
Possible improvements can begin as early as the position itself, at the stage of appointment. While needing to hire managers is often a welcome indication of business growth, recruitment or promotion criteria need to be vetted rigorously. Past performance is easy to measure, but an ineffective indicator of ability in future roles: ambition is a particularly unreliable pointer – a desire to succeed (or perhaps be better rewarded) does not imply an ability to do so.
In new or rapidly growing businesses, newly appointed managers may find themselves in environments that are at best rapidly evolving and highly dynamic, and at worst chaotic. The accompanying stresses often rapidly highlight shortcomings in competences and emotional intelligence, and ‘derailing’ behaviours can often surface. Thoughtful use of psychometric instruments such as the Hogan Development Survey – a powerful indicator of the ‘dark side’ of individual potential – can pay dividends.
While managers must recognise a need and desire to develop others (a factor employees rank more highly than employers in driving motivation and engagement, and a role increasingly moving from L&D to general managers), organisations need to recognise an equal need (and responsibility) to support them in doing so. If they look to line managers as mentors, coaches, evaluators of performance and even potential (often building these responsibilities into job descriptions), they should also ensure that line managers have the tools, experience, knowledge – and the will – to do so.
When all eyes are on productivity, performance and outcomes – a situation in which additional managers are typically recruited – organisations can also focus unduly on what is monitored and measured, unaware that urgency may highlight symptoms rather than underlying causes. While managers’ performance targets must still be reviewed, appraising them also on their people management skills may pay greater future dividends (especially where they subsequently receive necessary support).
While middle and senior managers may recognise the importance of helping staff develop their skills and careers (for engagement, motivation and staff retention as well as organisational performance), any manager’s responsibilities include ensuring that those they manage have the resources, ability and capacity to deliver against expectations. More senior levels of management must ensure this applies to lower levels, yet many junior managers attempt to fulfil performance management roles without training, support or feedback.
In the absence of periodic review (or even periodic or ‘in the moment’ coaching), this can lead to sizeable and growing organisational blindspots. It can also leave a vital aspect of organisational management unspoken: if the topic is closed, there is no opportunity for a manager to say ‘I need some assistance with this as I don’t want to under-perform’ – or, more seriously, ‘I don’t think this role is for me any longer’.
While dictionaries might define ‘managing’ as ‘succeeding in surviving or in achieving something despite difficult circumstances’, that is not a definition any organisation should wish to apply. ‘To manage’ must mean more than simply – somehow, despite everything – to cope.