Line managers need better support

Line managers are reportedly under work-related pressure from a number of directions

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) report, The Squeezed Middle: Why we should be hugging and not squeezing line managers, recommends that HR metaphorically ‘hugs and not squeezes’ line managers, if organisations are looking to stimulate productivity growth.

A 2013 Cranfield University School of Management survey of UK employers reported that 64% thought a lack of UK management skills and development held back productivity growth. This loss of productivity was reported to cost UK businesses more than £19 billion a year in lost working hours, according to the CMI.

Line managers are often referred to as the ‘squeezed middle’, partly as a result of the range of responsibilities they are expected to take on. Some of which are beyond traditional supervisory roles.

They can feel pressure when their direct reports need support, coaching, motivation, and performance monitoring. This requires the use of ‘soft skills’ and managing employees' expectations can be both emotionally and practically damaging.

Informed by CIPD research paper Learning and the line: The role of line managers in training, learning and development, The Squeezed Middle suggested that a business’ three main concerns regarding line management effectiveness centred around: their lack of skills and knowledge about the roles they need to do, competing priorities and work overload, and a lack of commitment to people management.

These concerns occur because it is still common practice in many organisations to promote people to line management roles as a result of positive performance in a technical or professional position.

However, this does not mean that an individual who is an outstanding engineer, accountant or teacher is good at pastoral roles or has the soft skills and emotional intelligence that managers need to successfully engage with their teams.

Professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School Cary Cooper commented: “The promotion of people on the basis of their technical competence is one of the reasons our productivity per capita is so poor.

“If we did an audit of our managerial staff from shop floor to top floor around 20% of them would prove to be very skilled technically but should never be left alone near people and are untrainable.

“Around 50% of those staff need training and some 20% or 30% have natural people skills.”

Report author and research fellow at the IES Zofia Bajorek said: “Organisations need to recognise that good line management matters and how employees are managed is crucial to organisational success.

“More thought may need to be given into how line managers are recruited or promoted and employers need to be very clear about good line management skills, what good behaviour in the organisation should look like, and provide appropriate support to managers to obtain these.”

The report concluded with several recommendations for how HR can help get the best out of line managers. These included the need for continued professional development through training, support and mentoring, and providing clarity in organisations about what good line management skills and behaviours look like – for example, ‘recognition, empowerment, reviewing and guiding, feedback, reward/praise and autonomy’.