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Phil Brown

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How to beat the recession by empowering your line managers


In a downturn organisations are faced with the challenge of cutting costs whilst ensuring staff remain productive and motivated. Phil Brown examines the benefits of drawing on the capabilities of your line managers as a means of weathering the economic storm.

The role of line managers has been a hot topic in recent years in HR circles, but the recession is making it even hotter. Under scrutiny is the question of who should take most responsibility for people management in an organisation – HR or line managers?
As the recession bites, and businesses are forced to work more efficiently and reduce their overheads, this question is becoming more important. Good people management has a proven direct effect on a company’s bottom line – and in some cases it can make the difference between a business surviving or failing in tough times.
When organisations are making cuts, they need to ensure that employees remain motivated, engaged and focused on clear business objectives to drive productivity and profitability forwards.
So who will be driving this? Step forward the line managers.
In tough times the line manager plays a critical role in motivating employees and many organisations are now recognising that if they are to weather the economic storm and come out of it well-placed to make the most of the recovery, they need to fully empower their line managers to take accountability for people management.
This drive was evident even before the recession. A 2007 survey of UK HR directors revealed that while responsibility for people management was split 50:50 between line managers and HR, most thought the ideal split was 80:20.
And a 2008 survey by the Employment Review found that two-thirds of organisations were expecting line managers to take more accountability for people management in the immediate future.
Organisational performance
The power of good line management was revealed in what is probably the biggest ever research exercise into factors which influence organisational performance. Gallup’s 30-year-long study spanned 114 countries and included 10 million interviews with employees and managers in 41 languages.
From these, Gallup identified 12 key factors influencing employee performance – and many relate to the activities of front-line managers – such as giving employees clear targets, regular recognition and praise, frequent updates about their performance and encouraging their personal development.
The evidence shows that good people management can increase profits – one study showed that achieving a 10% improvement against 12 key management practices led to an increase in profit of £1,200 per employee – but there is another solid reason for empowering frontline managers: risk.
Any business process is only as strong as its weakest link and unfortunately in many situations frontline managers, through no fault of their own, are that weakest link. The role demands a daunting array of skills and not every line manager has them all. If managers are not doing the right thing – from asking the right questions at interviews to carrying out checks on a new starter – then organisations are exposed to risk.
So how do you empower your frontline managers to be successful at the same time as protecting your business?
Based on our experiences working with clients, we have found 10 golden rules for making the most of your vital assets, the frontline manager:
  1. Get senior managers on board. Significant change is impossible without their support. Senior managers need both to act as role models and to allow line managers the time to devote to people management.
  2. Set clear, readable frameworks to support managers. Dump the 20-page, jargon-heavy documents. Present clear, action-oriented guidelines.
  3. Educate line managers about the impact of their behaviours. Don’t assume they will all instinctively understand what constitutes good management. This is where senior HR managers can help, by raising awareness among line managers.
  4. Relate good practices to business outcomes. Motivate line managers by showing how good practice will help them achieve personal and team targets. Avoid resorting to ‘because that’s what the policy says’
  5. Provide coaching and mentoring programmes. Individual managers need to know it is OK for them to admit they don’t know how to handle every situation. Coaching and mentoring allows them to ask for help in a non-threatening, low-risk way.
  6. Use technology-based tools to help guide managers through processes. This allows them to be more self-sufficient and reduces the administrative burden on the HR team. Typically, managers can deal with 70 to 80% of the issues they face if they just have better access to information, documentation and relevant guidance. Giving them this frees up valuable HR time for the occasions when managers truly require their expertise.
  7. Be prepared to let go. Accept some mistakes will be made, and do not have HR step in every time there is a problem. In the long term it is far better to coach line managers on how to handle issues themselves.
  8. Use training to improve skills and raise awareness – but don’t expect it to solve everything. While training is great for skills development, it is not so good for imparting knowledge. People tend to forget facts, figures and policies over time if they are not used regularly. Back up classroom training with on-the-job support tools.
  9. Use rewards and performance management to encourage good practice. If a manager is only judged on operational targets, that is what they will focus on, so set objectives for managing and developing staff.
  10. Shout about the successes. Nothing breeds success like success. Line managers will be inspired to adopt desired behaviours if they see other managers achieving successful results. Find positive examples in your organisation and publicise them widely.
Phil Brown is managing director of Youmanage Ltd, providers of a unique online HR toolkit for managers.

2 Responses

  1. People Management and Empowerment

    This is getting to be a common subject for discussion and hopefully will become a talking point between Directors, Managers and HR.

    Firstly we need to clearly understand the term empowerment – rather than just answer this with my view – why don’t we all contribute to see what the term means to you.

    Secondly – the relationship between HR, The board of Directors, senior and junior management and the staff is key to the successful management of people. By this I suggest that if a member of staff needs to take business instruction from a line manager but is able to go to HR for motivation – then how does the individual decide who is right when conflict occurs.

    Line managers are people motivators. Motivating staff to achieve what the business needs, not what the individual wants to believe the business needs.

    Business Directors direct the business from point A to point B, laying down business values which staff should follow in the knoweledge that if a mistake is made, providing it followed the agreed business values, should be suported by management and corrected without comeback.

    Managers from senior to junior should ensure that the communication of such values is clear and tested.

    Where skills fall short of the requirement designed into the job role, then performance management should rectify this within a given timeframe.

    When skills match the job role, success occurs for the business and the individual and desire to succeed follows.

    Motivation is an individual concept – not a team or company concept, and is variable from day to day.

    HR have a role to play – but is it really to motivate the employee – or to replace the line manager?

    Job role definition and business strategy need to be aligned for businesses to achive their goals. Creating well defined job roles, linked to skills and competencies is not a function of the line manager.

    Interviewing candidates for job roles is therefore not a function of line management even though the final decision to employ from a short list might need to involve the line manager.

    Designing teams to operate at optimum efficiency is not a job for a line manager unless he/she is trained to do so. This is a function well suited to HR with the line managers involvement.

    My point is that job functions have an intrinsic part to play in the success of the business but until the necessary skills are optimised with the knowledge and the desire, performance will not keep pace with need.

    Clarity and communicaton are the key elements to a successful business – WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE HOW and WHY are the keys.

  2. Line managers are unavoidably empowered to manage people

    Hi Phil,

    You rightly emphasize the critically important role that line managers play in stimulating (and potentially undermining) organizational performance. However, I can’t agree that the extent of managers’ influence in this respect depends on their being empowered to act by HR. Line managers are unavoidably empowered to “manage people”. It comes with the territory.

    Whatever might currently be being said in HR circles about where responsibility for people management should sit, I would argue that line managers (from the Boardroom to the front line) are the only “people managers” in a business. This is the case whether they happen to be good ones or bad ones.

    The primary task of HR professionals is to encourage, assist and enable line managers to perform this role more effectively – and in a more informed way – than they might otherwise do.  Where HR’s formal processes, systems and procedures fail to satisfy this enabling role, it should not be a surprise if people management practices ‘on the ground’ fall short of the presumed ideal.

    And even where the formal HR framework ‘ticks all the right boxes’, actual outcomes will still depend on the moment-by-moment interactions that line managers have with their staff, as they try to navigate their way through the messy reality of everyday organizational life (recession or no recession).

    Regards, Chris.


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