· Features

The line manager's role in engagement

Line managers are key to reaching all levels. But how can you engage with the engagers?

“Without them there is no engagement.” So says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, on the importance of line managers to employee engagement.

It’s a strong statement, but one many others wholeheartedly agree with. “There is nothing more important. I don’t think it’s possible to engage others if the line manager is not engaged,” says Julia Murrell, director of people and development at Firmdale Hotels. “People work for people.”

Engaging employees:

Defining employee engagement: What does it mean to the experts?

Fostering a culture of belonging and engagement in a hybrid environment

Engagement surveys failing to provide the full picture

And yet when it comes to line manager involvement in engagement, Cooper points out: “We haven’t cracked this yet.” To help HR crack this most difficult of nuts, HR magazine rounds up the 12 steps to engage line managers in engagement once and for all.

1. Recruit on interpersonal skills

The first hurdle is getting the right people in the first place, says Cooper.

“Line managers are not selected for their social interpersonal skills,” he laments. This comes down to wider confusion around job descriptions, explains Charmi Patel, associate professor of HRM at Henley Business School. “A lot of employers, especially for management roles, talk about the role’s responsibilities but forget about skillsets,” she says.

However, Corina Forman, HR director at courier APC Overnight, caveats that recruiting a manager with perfectly attuned interpersonal skills isn’t always possible.

“It can certainly make life easier, but sometimes you need someone with exceptional technical skills and they haven’t had the opportunity within their career to develop [interpersonal skills] yet,” she says.

2. Differentiate between people and technical managers

As important as people-centred managers are, technical capability is also critical to a firm’s success. HR director at architecture firm HLM Karen Mosley recommends creating two separate development streams for people leaders and technical leaders.

“We’ve suffered in the past from pushing people into management positions because they’re technically competent, but they perhaps lack the people skills or just aren’t interested in that,” she says. “That usually results in disengagement at every level.”

3. Engage managers with company strategy

Emeritus professor of international HRM at Lancaster University Management School Paul Sparrow points out that the role of the manager is two-fold. People feeling inspired by likeable and charismatic managers is important, but so is staff understanding what needs to be achieved.

“There needs to be some kind of process that engages managers with the strategy, enabling them to see what people need to engage with,” he says. “There’s no point just making people happy. People need to be competent and happy. There’s a motivational and a sense-making side.”

4. Start from the top

For line managers to understand their company’s strategy and purpose it needs to be clearly communicated from above. Boards must be fully committed to engagement, states Forman. “It does have to come from the top,” she says. “If the senior levels don’t get engagement and aren’t on board then the tier below won’t either.” “This starts from us as directors,” agrees Mosley.

5. Don’t overcomplicate things

Keeping things simple is often best, advises Chris Chinn, executive coach and L&D consultant, and former management development manager at Europcar.

“Most managers are doing engagement anyway,” he says. “It’s not training people on skills they haven’t got; it’s raising awareness. Most are aware of having conversations about job roles day to day. But if you’re aware of making more of that conversation it’s even more effective.”

Cooper says some managers won’t need much intervention: “Do an assessment of your managers; a third will probably have good interpersonal skills. You don’t necessarily have to do anything with them.”

6. Don’t overload managers with HR concepts and tasks

“Engagement is not an HR task,” says Murrell, reiterating the point that every manager should see engagement as ‘their job’. Key at Firmdale is sharing engagement data with managers, she says. But there’s a crucial balance. “Every department should be in charge of engagement, but there’s a difference between specialist and generalist,” advises Patel.

“You can end up loading the most ridiculous set of expectations on people otherwise,” warns Sparrow. It’s important not to overload people with academic HR concepts and jargon, says Cooper.

“I don’t think managers should be looking at ‘engagement,’” he says. “That’s what’s got us into trouble; because we have metrics on it now and everyone has an engagement scale, and it goes up half a percent and you’re happy – it becomes a tick-box exercise. I think we have to say to managers: forget the concept of engagement for a minute. Instead think: ‘how do I create an environment where people wake up in the morning and want to come to work?’”

7. Sell the benefits

Engaging managers with engagement is about selling why this will alleviate rather than exacerbate other pressures, says Chinn. “You need to say: ‘if we get this right we’ll save time,’” he explains.

“At Europcar we showed them real-life data on Prudential, who had a core group trained in employee engagement and a group that weren’t. The groups managed by someone who wasn’t trained had high turnover, lower sales and worse customer satisfaction.”

“Enormously valuable is gaining the involvement of line managers in the design and implementation of programmes,” adds Forman. “The best ideas sometimes fail because we haven’t got the key stakeholders involved. That will get their ultimate buy-in.”

But again, distinguishing between the behind-the-scenes specialist graft HR should be putting in and the line manager’s role is crucial, she caveats: “The trick is to get people’s ideas, but take that back, put the hard work in and make it happen,” she says.

8. Make training experiential

“Investing in external training can be very valuable, but things like internal mentoring are also useful,” says Forman. “You need more experiential training,” agrees Sparrow, adding this will be critical in managers finding their own style: “You can show people how to find their own way. It often comes down to coaching. The motivational side depends on your personality; some people are good at it naturally. But there are people who might not be the most personally engaging, but are brilliant at getting their teams to know what’s important.”

Patel adds that organisations should think more open-mindedly about the classic leadership workshop: “Companies think of leadership training very much as ‘you go only if you want to be a leader’. But every line manager is a leader.”

9. Revamp competency frameworks

There’s no point creating an engagement culture and training managers if formal assessment structures don’t back this up, says Forman. “It’s got to embrace both the formal and informal communication structures,” she says. “That comes down to investing time developing your own competency framework. You need to build in these attributes and behaviours rather than picking one off the shelf.”

What engages people from one organisation to the next will vary, says Cooper: “You have to find out what engagement means to your employees. Ask them: what makes a really good line manager?”

10. Reward engaging managers

The next logical step is rewarding managers who hit these competency objectives, says Forman. “It comes down to who gets promoted and who gets on,” she says. “It’s all well and good recognising someone in their appraisal, but we need to reflect that in succession planning. It’s not saying the facts and figures can be overlooked, but there has to be a balance.”

Chinn points out that recognition can’t always come in the form of promotion or pay rises, and that there are other ways of encouraging the right behaviours. He describes Europcar’s ‘One Challenge’ engagement recognition scheme where winning teams were awarded £500 for a night out, runners up £250, and so on.

“That focused people,” he says. “People enjoyed the publicity and recognition they got as individuals and teams. It doesn’t have to be expensive in the bigger scheme of things. We didn’t have to increase people’s pay or say ‘you’re going to be penalised if you don’t do this’.”

11. Look to other factors

While managers are critical to engagement they can’t be made solely responsible, feels Christoph Williams, Sony Europe’s strategic content senior manager for leadership, learning, talent and performance management. “The manager gets a lot of attention because if something goes wrong with your colleagues, customers or the organisation – the three other engagement dimensions – you tend to blame your line manager,” he says.

“You think: ‘why didn’t my line manger do more to help me resolve the situation?’ It’s completely unfair.” He adds that if wider systems are poor there’s only so much a manager can do. “If other HR things like recruitment and performance management are all lousy there’s a limit to how engaged people will be,” agrees Sparrow.

12. Don’t stand still

It stands to reason that if every organisation is open to constant change, then its engagement strategy should be as well. “I believe that engagement is an area where you have to try different things and find something for everyone,” says Firmdale’s Murrell. “As long as engagement is considered as continuously changing, thinking of new ideas and building on what is working, there will be a success.”


More on engagement:

How to create a culture that works for everyone

How employee experience could be failing your people

Four employee experience myths that must be tackled