Want to increase employee engagement? Prioritise your line managers’ soft skills
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Want to increase employee engagement? Prioritise your line managers’ soft skills

‘If I had money to invest in one thing, it would be line manager training.’ Dame Carol Black, HR Directors Summit 2015

‘Our line managers are not fit for purpose; they simply don’t have the interpersonal skills.’ Professor Cary Cooper, Why Mental Health Matters 2015

What I find most interesting about these statements is the fact that they’re still being made. The soft skills deficit of the UK’s line managers has been recognised for years. Since the HSE’s 2007 publication on management competencies for reducing employee stress, there have been guidelines to help managers do everything from supporting employees’ return to work to managing conflict. The centrality of line managers to employee engagement and workplace wellbeing, both vital to high performance and productivity, is also well established.

At the same time, poor managerial behaviour has been identified as a major source of absence and is linked to employee disengagement. And yet the problem remains. Why?

‘Our managers just don’t have the skills’

Organisations are not unaware of this soft skills gap. I recently attended an event at a major bank about improving the way mental health problems are handled in the workplace. The goal was to create a climate in which employees feel able to disclose their struggle with a mental health problem and seek help.

One of the senior managers present spoke up and said: ‘our line managers just don’t have the understanding, or the skills, to deal with these issues with the sensitivity that’s needed.’

It’s not just regarding employee mental health where managers’ people skills are lacking, either. A whole range of common work scenarios such as conversations around poor performance, managing returns to work or dealing with a workplace dispute can be a potential minefield for a manager lacking the skills to handle them correctly.

Wilful blindness to problems with organisational culture has a cost

The repercussions for organisations wilfully ignoring this situation cannot be overestimated. Poor handling of issues or insensitive treatment can irreparably damage levels of trust, respect, engagement and wellbeing; which any HR professional worth their salary will tell you are key determinants of future employee performance.

There are also further implications for corporate wellness programmes. UK spending on employee wellbeing has been increasing year-on-year, with growing numbers of businesses rightly viewing wellbeing as a strategic imperative. These strategies are seriously compromised if the organisation’s managerial tier acts in a way that undermines employee engagement.

Changing the game for manager-employee relations

However, there are things that businesses can do to address the problem, all of which focus on the role of the line manager. Here are three practical steps employers can take to help their managers build and then utilise their soft skills and ultimately boost workplace engagement:

  1. Make soft skills training for your line managers part of the package
    Is interpersonal training something your managers currently receive? If not, introduce mandatory high-quality, soft skills training for current and would-be line managers. This will equip them to build strong relationships at work and help them adopt a more supportive management style. It’s a good idea to incorporate this training into the induction process for first-time managers to help spread best practice through the organisation.
  1. Don’t let a target-focused culture blind you to everything else
    If your business prioritises targets above all else, it will discourage managers from creating time to build up the good team and individual relationships on which strong delivery depends. Place equal emphasis on line manager’s acquisition and their use of the right kinds of behavioural skills. Measuring and rewarding these behaviours through your performance management system will increase the likelihood of creating a more supportive management culture across your organisation.
  1. Think long and hard about your recruitment process
    Do your organisation’s recruitment practices prioritise technical job competencies over people management skills? If your answer is ‘yes’, you’re likely to be creating a managerial cadre that’s ill-equipped to deal with the complex people problems that surface in all businesses. Introduce recruitment processes that actively identify and select for the traits and soft skills found in good line managers. This will make it possible to filter out applicants with poor interpersonal skills.

Applying and refining these measures will go a long way towards helping you create a managerial cohort that’s worthy of your organisation, and of your workforce.