Long reads

Will we ever build better line managers?

25 Apr 2019 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The evidence suggests it is possible to fix the thorny problem of inadequate bosses – if you know how

You’d be hard pushed to find someone who hasn’t had a truly awful line manager at some point in their career – just start typing “my manager is…” into Google and the autocomplete suggestions (“bullying me”, “rude”, “controlling”, “unprofessional”) speak for themselves. 

But having an inept boss is not just a source of great annoyance for those affected, and perhaps the subject of an eventual dinner party anecdote – it’s also detrimental to health. The CIPD and Simplyhealth’s 2019 Health and Wellbeing at Work report found that management style is cited by 43 per cent of employees with stress-related absence as a cause, beaten only by workload (62 per cent). And workload, in essence, also comes down to good or bad management.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, describes the findings as a “stark illustration of how detrimental it can be to people’s health and wellbeing if managers aren’t equipped with the right level of skills, confidence and behaviour.” And that mix is hard to get right. Contrary to public perception, there’s much more to managing a team than just doing yearly appraisals and approving annual leave; a report by workplace learning provider Grovo – Good Manager, Bad Manager – describes a good manager as “like a team leader, coach, trainer and psychiatrist all wrapped up into one.” 

For those managers who don’t possess the delicate balance of empathy, communication and leadership skills required, it’s not necessarily their fault: Suff highlights the growing gap between the expectations placed on line managers and the amount invested in their development. “Obviously, training in both people management skills and the organisation’s policies and processes is important,” she says. “But it goes deeper than that, down to their behaviour and competencies too. They have to have the space to fulfil this side of their role, but often they’re too squeezed operationally.”

Rob Wall, head of policy at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), agrees: “Management is sometimes seen as the fat you can cut when times are tough, rather than something you need to invest in and develop,” he says. A 2007 University of Bath study published in the journal Human Resource Management, highlighted the “gap between what is formally required in HR policy and what is actually delivered by [front-line managers].”

The question, then, is whether the mammoth investment in management training, academic research and popular theory (management and leadership are far and away the two most popular topic of business book) is any closer to helping us develop effective managers, or whether more drastic thinking is required.

When they’re effective, line managers play a key role in organisational success; the same University of Bath study highlighted their role as HR “agents”, providing the vital link between leaders and employees, and the huge impact this can have on employee behaviour. 

But part of the reason some line managers are ill-equipped for this aspect of their role is that some methods of management training, as well as the way organisations implement them, are not fit for purpose. While development itself is a must – corroborated by a Kansas State University study which found a direct link between better manager training and a reduction in employees’ intentions to leave – Dr Clare Rigg, senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool Management School, highlights that learning to manage should be an “ongoing project”, rather than being taught in a one-off, short-term manner. She also points out that many organisations adopt a “knee-jerk” style and promote people who aren’t ready, when in fact they should be preparing them for a step up when the opportunity arises. Wall adds that “the best managers are those that continually refresh their skillsets. Just like doctors need to update their skills as medical practice changes, so should managers.”

A long-term approach to manager training is one that has worked for appliance care provider Domestic & General. Using a portion of its apprenticeship levy funds, it’s designed an ‘Aspiring Leaders’ programme, which aims to bridge the gap between being a front-line employee and becoming a manager.

Separately, it’s also launched two bespoke development programmes for managers within its call centres, with content tailored to the individual’s level of experience and covering skills including relationship building, performance management and having difficult conversations.

“A lot of our managers are just starting out in their careers, so may not have had a huge amount of experience,” explains chief operating officer and former group HR director Nick Ulycz. “We want all our managers to know that we recognise their importance within the business, and that we’re continuing to invest in them.”

As well as training in more traditional areas, organisations are beginning to realise the importance of ‘softer’ skills like emotional intelligence, communication and critical thinking in line management capabilities. “Many organisations are now recruiting for people skills, rather than just technical skills,” says Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business and management at the University of Westminster and CEO of The Management Shift Consulting. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 report, The Future of Jobs, similarly predicts that “human” skills including emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence will see an “outsized increase in demand” between now and 2022 as the need for more traditional people management capabilities declines.

The importance of these softer competencies may be increasing, but is it possible for those managers who lack natural empathy to learn them? “People can be taught technical skills, they can go on training courses, but to hone those soft skills takes longer,” says Hlupic. “We can teach people what emotional awareness looks like, but it’s up to them to make a conscious effort to pay attention to their thinking patterns.” Dr Tatiana Rowson, lecturer in coaching at Henley Business School, agrees: “It’s harder for some people to develop [soft skills] than others,” she says. “But it’s an ongoing approach, so a one-day course wouldn’t necessarily be a solution for most people.”

But if it’s not possible to teach these ‘softer’ skills quickly and get them in place when they’re needed, should organisations be promoting or recruiting differently instead? “At CMI, we use the phrase ‘accidental manager’,” says Wall. “People are promoted into management roles because they’re good at their day job, but they’re not given any support or training in how to manage. And that has a huge impact.”

Music streaming platform Spotify has taken this idea one step further. Realising that people skills are less common than technical expertise across its team of hundreds of developers, it put in place a radically different ‘lattice’ management structure, where employees’ technical competency and emotional needs are separated and looked after by two different managers – something Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, organisational psychologist and author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, calls a “really smart idea”. 

“I don’t understand why other engineering companies don’t do this more,” he says. “Because they understand that EQ [emotional intelligence] and IQ are not often found in the same person.”

Chamorro-Premuzic also points out that people who are less technically effective at their own jobs don’t necessarily make bad managers. “If you have people skills, intelligence, curiosity and integrity then you will be a good manager,” he says. “For none of those things do I need to look at your skills record or past performance. In sports, the best managers were not very good individual players, and a lot of the star players are crappy managers.”

But if organisations want to avoid the substandard end of management, what exactly does having good people skills entail? Rowson highlights the importance of fostering psychological safety among teams, so employees feel they can be themselves and are comfortable raising any issues. “Managers should be more open, vulnerable and human,” she says. “If they don’t put themselves at a human level, how can the team feel comfortable sharing any difficulties they’re having?” 

For pharmaceutical company Novartis, whether someone has those people skills is the difference between them being given a management job or not. “We’ve made difficult decisions not to hire people, and in some cases left roles vacant for six months or more, because we haven’t been prepared to compromise on someone’s leadership style,” says HR director Erica Cassin. The organisation – which was recently awarded Top Employer status for the sixth consecutive year – is working on developing an ‘un-boss’ culture, moving away from more traditional definitions of managers, and instead positioning them as “servants” of their teams, supporting them and providing empowerment and accountability. “Their level of self-awareness is key, but also how they manage their emotions and that they understand the impact they have on other people. If someone didn’t demonstrate these, we wouldn’t hire them,” says Cassin.

Hlupic further breaks down the concept of an effective manager and culture in her ‘Five levels of the emergent leadership’ model, outlined in her book The Management Shift. This sets out five distinct stages of organisational and management effectiveness, each characterised by specific thinking patterns, leadership styles and behaviour. 

But it’s not all down to the individual manager to ensure they’re up to the job; the nature of the organisation’s culture and its senior leaders, the support they offer and the examples they set also have a significant impact: a 2015 study by Vanderbilt University found that middle managers’ relationships with their own bosses had a direct correlation with happiness levels and turnover rates among their teams. 

“[Managers] need the same support from their manager as they would be expected to give their direct reports,” says Suff. “If senior leaders aren’t role- modelling the right behaviour, all the line manager training in the world isn’t going to combat that.” 

Equally as important as support from their own boss is coaching and mentoring from other leaders within the organisation. Managers, as Rigg points out, will develop more rapidly if that development is supported and guided, either via a peer-to-peer coaching scheme or through mentoring – and it’s an important part of HR’s role to ensure these networks are set up. 

Rowson also highlights that mentoring “helps [line managers] to make sense of their role and what the approach is”. However, Chamorro-Premuzic is keen to point out that for initiatives like coaching to work, those being coached have to already have a certain level of competence and self-awareness. “This is one of the paradoxes of coaching,” he adds. “It works most for people who need it the least, because the people that get better are the people who were good to begin with. The people who really need coaching are almost uncoachable.”

As well as support from above, perhaps the most important driver of all is feedback from those implicated the most – line managers’ own teams – which in turn fosters good self-awareness, in the form of an understanding of their own style, strengths, weaknesses and impact on other people. Chamorro-Premuzic says feedback from direct reports is perhaps the best indicator of manager performance: “If you want to predict whether a manager will do a good job or not, look at what their subordinates are saying about them,” he says.

Investing in line managers may not be high on many organisations’ lists of priorities, but doing so will bring a host of benefits. As Chamorro-Premuzic succinctly puts it: “Everything good and bad flows through the workforce by the manager. They are key.” 

But for further evidence, perhaps we should look – as he suggests – to the world of sport. Ole Gunnar Solskjær was a far from universal choice for the role of Manchester United manager: his track record was patchy from a technical perspective (his previous job in British football resulted in relegation) but he undoubtedly has the human touch and an ability to motivate and command respect from his subordinates. And many pundits believe he has confounded expectations by leading the team to the verge of the Premier League top four. If football clubs understand that soft skills matter, we might ask, why don’t some of our most successful organisations?

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