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Dilys Robinson

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Employee development: The role of the line manager


Examining the importance of the employee-line manager relationship in employee development with experts from the Insititute of Employment Studies.

Any research that is done focusing on people within organisations almost invariably concludes that the employee-line manager relationship is crucial. Two pieces of research carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies , for example, came to almost identical conclusions about effective people management – even though they were carried out at different times (2004 and 2009) and with a different emphasis (the earlier study explored managers as developers of other people in the workplace, while the more recent study focused on managerial behaviours which lead to employee engagement).

There is no doubt that employees with effective, engaging line managers value them hugely, and that their development focus is a key reason why they are perceived to be good managers. Engaging managers:

•    give clear explanations and direction, so team members understand what they have to do and why
•    are interested in the people in their teams, know what interests and motivates them as individuals, and understand their strengths and weaknesses: they know who relishes a challenge, who might need persuading to take on a difficult task, and who is likely to require support
•    want team members to develop and succeed, even if this means they might leave the team or even the organisation
•    develop the team by involving them in decision-making and work organisation, and by delegating effectively
•    are visible and accessible if a team member needs help and guidance
•    have a coaching style, and share their knowledge with the team
•    have a clear performance focus: they high expectations of the team, encouraging them to believe they can succeed, and tackle poor performance quickly and skilfully
•    recognise and celebrate success.

As a result of being managed well by a manager who is interested in their progress and development, team members typically reported enjoyment and a sense of pride in their jobs, and greater confidence and motivation:
‘…we all pretty much know what we’re supposed to be doing, where it fits in and why.’
‘He’s passed on his knowledge…He helps you.’
‘I remember when I first started, I kept getting stuck…and she was always there to give advice.’
‘He won’t step in prematurely…He’ll allow people to work their way through it, which is good.’
‘You can almost see a visual difference between the teams. I think we are one of the brighter or chirpier places.’

IES’s work on ‘managers as developers’ has enabled us to draw up a practical framework for managers under five main headings, which is described in outline here.

  1. Setting the climate: This is essentially about finding time for people, especially when they need help, and encouraging the team to help each other and share information. Developing people is a business priority, not a chore, and done properly, it can be a real pleasure!
  2. Building a developmental relationship: Get to know your team, talk to them frequently about their work, and listen carefully to their concerns. Encourage people to take responsibility for their own development, but offer appropriate help and organise suitable opportunities for them.
  3. Giving feedback and focus: This relates to being explicit and open about your expectations around standards and behaviour, and interacting frequently with your team so that you can assess their performance. Be honest and timely about giving feedback, praise wherever possible, but tackle poor performance quickly.
  4. Delivering development: It is important to ensure that agreed developmental priorities are actively pursued. These could involve coaching, projects, job swaps and external activities as well as formal training events. Use opportunities to pass on your own knowledge and to coach people informally.
  5. Encouraging active career development: Development in the current job needs to be set in a wider career context – what has this individual done before, and what might he/she do in the future? You will be in a good position to spot potential and encourage people to think about job change or promotion, although you may also have to manage expectations. Line managers also often need to put individuals in touch with others, at more senior levels or in other parts of the business, who can help them develop their careers.  

Dilys Robinson, Principal Research Fellow
Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate
Institute for Employment Studies, 


One Response

  1. Managers need to be better equipped to do the job required of th

    Thanks for an interesting article. I don’t think it’ll be a big surprise to anyone that the research shows line managers have a vital impact on employee development and engagement. However it’s always useful to see empirical back-up for what many people will intuitively feel to be true, which is that good line management has a massive impact both on short-term employee performance and the longer-term realising of an employee’s potential. The real issue for most organisations is not about knowing what managers should be doing, it’s creating the conditions in which they actually do those things. This requires a number of factors to come together. Organisations themselves need to create the right climate in which good people management is valued and positively promoted (as opposed to just paid lip service to) – and a lot of this has to come from senior management – both acting as positive role models and also creating the necessary headroom for managers to manage their people, alongside delivery of their functional tasks. Managers also need to be better equipped to do the job required of them – this means giving them the right training but also the right on-the-job tools to be genuinely effective. Too often organisations talk about greater line management accountability and empowerment but fail to equip them to do the job well.  Phil Brown Managing Director Youmanage – the online HR toolkit for managers



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