· 3 min read · Features

Line management matters - Good HR improves profit


The thing about clichés like 'our people are our greatest asset' and 'people management is a critical part of the line manager’s role' is that there is an underlying truth to them.

When CIPD commissioned research from Bath University in 2003 to assess the changing role of the line manager, the initial findings showed employees who feel positive about their relationship with their line manager are more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty. These are in turn associated with higher levels of discretionary behaviour and performance.

Here we are, eight years later, and in the recent ACE International HR Barometer 2011, only 22% of the 760 HR professionals who responded feel confident that their line managers own their people-management responsibilities.

As HR professionals, we know that employees have two needs that are fundamental to their relationship with their employer: access to meaningful conversations and meaningful opportunity.

Meaningful conversations address the four questions that everyone needs answering: How am I doing? What happens next? How will I get there? How will I be rewarded?

Meaningful opportunity relates to the experience necessary to develop your capabilities.

For some people, meaningful opportunity means ambition, promotion and development opportunities that will move them towards their long-term aspirations. These people may include future leaders or those who can take on critical roles. But most organisations will also have people who carry out essential tasks, but who do not want to be promoted: they are happy where they are.

They too need and deserve development and are important to the business. Their line managers must encourage them, coach them and provide them with opportunities to remain up-to-date, to perform tasks better and to adapt to change: no job stays the same for long.

"These are processes for HR, not line managers - scrap them"

Time and again, I come across line managers groaning under the weight of appraisal forms, procedures manuals, recruitment requisitions, absence records and more. I find them having to deal with someone's disappointment, or anger about a pay award over which they had no input. Recently, in one organisation, several directors showed me filing cabinets full of 360-degree reviews about which they had never had feedback or support. I could go on. These are processes for HR, not for line managers. Scrap them, or redesign them all so that they focus line managers on the crucial parts of their role: to have meaningful conversations and open meaningful opportunity.

Three golden rules

There are three basic rules to helping line managers become better people managers:

1 Give everyone a clearly designated line manager – someone to take ownership and be accountable for performance, reward and career, on a continuing basis, not just once a year. It is failure to do this that so often leads to poor motivation and to good people leaving for opportunity elsewhere.

2 Treat people management as a shared process – the line manager retains ownership and accountability, while managing input from several people when reviewing performance and deciding on the next move.

3 Provide HR support and guidance to help line managers deal with poor performers. Differentiate between high and satisfactory performance, and develop their interpersonal and coaching skills, as well as providing backup to make sure high performers get the right recognition and development.

Make it rewarding

Consider this example: The pay and promotion system at a professional services firm focused line managers' efforts on revenue and client relationships, at the expense of good people management. This created dissatisfaction among their staff, which led to higher than desired staff turnover and was impacting adversely on client service.

When reward systems are aligned with the talent management messages this can result in measureable improvements to the bottom line. Perhaps I should rephrase that: Good HR improves profit. In my experience, training and communications programmes aimed at driving better people management must be reinforced through the reward and recognition programme.

I find that few organisations have really changed their infrastructure to meet the changing role of the line manager in our new world organisation. We need to put in place structures, processes and training that recognise that line management is not the one-on-one, linear relationship it used to be, and as a result demands a much higher level of relationship management, between managers and their people, and between managers about their people.

Janice Caplan is a partner with talent management company, The Scala Group