Line managers cast a long shadow on employees' experiences at work
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Line managers exert huge influence on employee wellbeing, are you giving yours the skills they need to get it right?

‘People don’t leave their job; they leave their manager.’ This is a rather crude statement, of course, but the reason it resonates is that it contains a kernel of truth we all recognise. There is a growing appreciation that line managers have huge influence on employee wellbeing, for good or for bad. The role of managers has been the subject of much research over the last five years, and the findings are concerning. Investors in People estimate that poor people management costs UK businesses £84 billion a year. Research from Gallup in 2015 found that one in two people have quit their job to get away from their manager at some point in their career. By any reckoning, this suggests we have a real problem.

Yet, if we explore what happens when line managers have strong people skills we find a very different picture. Good people management is associated with increased levels of trust, sense of purpose, staff retention and job satisfaction, all of which are linked to higher levels of employee wellbeing and productivity. In some ways this is telling us what we intuitively know; that we go the extra mile for a manager who cares about us as an individual, who is supportive and who is interested in our career development. The implications are clear – it’s critical to have people with good soft skills in line management roles.

So what can businesses do to turn things around? Below are four ways organisations can start to improve how they recruit, train, manage and support managers.

1. Recruiting the right people for the job
The first thing is to start recruiting the right people. Line managers’ roles have become increasingly complex, yet the thinking behind their recruitment remains stuck in the past. The paucity of science underpinning recruitment means that managers continue to be selected predominantly on the basis of their technical skills. In one study by Gallup, first-time line managers were asked why they were recruited into their roles; the most common responses were because of success in their previous role or longevity of tenure.

The problem is that our selection processes are inadequate, which means we’re not picking the best people. Indeed, 82% of businesses are estimated to fail to get the right people into management posts. The UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) says there is a real difficulty in finding line managers who are emotionally intelligent and able to motivate others. Other Gallup research found that only one employee in 10 has the range of skills and talents to manage a team. Yet, as we move further into the 21st century, these are the very skills and traits that are going to become most important. Studies suggest that jobs requiring strong interpersonal skills will dominate, as more and more technical jobs become automated.

As long as we focus primarily on technical skills we’re letting down the managers themselves. They are being shoehorned into roles to which they’re unsuited, which will ultimately frustrate them, and we’re also letting down their subordinates who will not get the quality of management they deserve. What I’d like to see are recruitment processes that actively explore and test out candidates’ soft skills in a meaningful way through psychometric testing and exacting scenario questions at interview.

2. Training line managers for people management
Training is also an issue. Most first-time managers are promoted without preparatory training and are simply dropped in at the deep end. The Chartered Management Institute says of line management training: ‘it’s too little too late’. Only 25% of businesses, it says, are good at training line managers prior to appointment. The ILM found that four out of five businesses regularly promote people into management roles without any training.

All first-time line managers should receive people skills training, so they’re not facing a sink or swim reality in their new role. And, however it’s delivered, the training should include experiential components that develop people’s empathic skills and their ability to confidently handle difficult situations with sensitivity. There’s no reason why existing line managers can’t undergo the same training, as many of them will undoubtedly be deficient in people skills.

3. Giving managers an explicit role in wellbeing
Businesses also need to give managers a much more explicit role in relation to the wellbeing of their teams. Wellbeing responsibilities need to be made explicit in job descriptions so that managers regard them as central, rather than peripheral, to their work. This approach could then be reinforced through performance reviews, by featuring wellbeing prominently in objectives and monitoring them as seriously as more hard-nosed objectives.

Line managers also have a key role to play in relation to any wellbeing strategies or programmes provided to employees. More businesses each year are developing comprehensive wellbeing strategies; it’s vital that these are not viewed as the exclusive remit of HR, otherwise they’ll fail to have the impact they should. Different parts of the business all have roles to play, including leaders in championing the programmes. But line managers have arguably the most important role of all by promoting wellbeing programmes to their teams, encouraging their use and, ideally, modelling good behaviours themselves.

4. An organisational culture that facilitates
Despite all I’ve said, we need to be careful not to demonise line managers. There are many who do possess the personality traits and skills to manage people well. But to do so they need a facilitative organisational culture. Most businesses reward delivery on task so it’s not surprising that, given their busy work demands, managers focus primarily on this area. This approach can mean that even those with all the right attributes can struggle to find the time to spend on their people responsibilities. And that’s where businesses have a key role to play: managers need to be encouraged to employ people skills and behaviours and be given the resources – especially the time – to do so.

If we’re serious about improving workplace wellbeing and, by extension, the success of UK business, these are the kinds of steps we need to develop line managers who possess the full spectrum of skills required to do the best for their teams and for the business.

A version of this article originally appeared on CIPD’s Community blog.