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The changing role of line management

by Jackson B
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Andrew Rayment, Partner in the Employment team at Walker Morris, and Catherine De La Poer, Leadership Coach and Founder of Halcyon Coaching Ltd, discuss the changing role of line management in businesses and the importance of emotional intelligence.

Over recent decades, the role of line management has largely changed due to the shift from manufacturing to services – with this change leaves the term line manager now somewhat outdated. While this phrase conjures up images of the production line, reporting lines and ‘tow-the-line’, businesses today are moving away from this kind of hierarchal structure towards more collaborative working, and focusing instead on creating a networked organisation that prioritises relationships, teams, groups and communities rather than reporting lines.

Traditionally, the role of the line manager was to protect the status quo and to uphold the chain of command by sharing information on a need to know basis only. Today, the role of a manager is often less about maintaining control, but instead about empowering teams to deliver the best work they can and supporting these individuals in their work life. As a result, many businesses have now shifted the way they operate with a clear divide emerging between project management – leading individual contributors and expert teams on a specific project – and people or team management. 

The CIPD and Simply Health’s 2019 Health and Wellbeing at Work report found that management style was cited by 43% of employees with stress-related absence as a cause, beaten only by workload at 62%. Of course, workload stress also inevitably comes down to good or bad management. This highlights the need for businesses to place greater emphasis on these ‘human skills’ in management, including emotional intelligence, empathy and integrity, with emotional self-awareness recognised as a key attribute of a good management team. 

However, when it comes to line management, businesses must also follow what the law says, but certainly not what tradition says. The three key legal building blocks of line management could be summarised as contracts, statutory protections, and equality laws. Businesses must of course consider statutory protections and whether contracts need to be re-imagined to reflect the changing role of a line manager coupled with the other changes happening in these “Covid times”. Equality laws also need to be a consideration as companies are increasingly coming under fire for discrimination, even if indirect or unintentional. 

While management is less focused on power and control, it is still important that managers can effectively solve issues with employees that may demonstrate poor workplace behaviour. This is a crucial ‘human’ management skill – to identify these problems, discuss the cause of this issue and effectively find a solution before the situation gets worse. It is worth considering that poor or disruptive behavioural patterns from employees are very often linked to their emotional needs not being met; they feel unsafe, rejected, trapped, or disempowered by their employer. This may require nothing more than a conversation to understand what has gone wrong however, it is also the case that some individuals choose to act disruptively for no reason other than to cause trouble. In this situation managers must be prepared to discipline those that are conducting themselves in a way that intentionally inhibits or damages the business.  

The ‘pandemic effect’

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for better communication skills within management teams. When considering the mental health and wellbeing of staff, the management role is even more central to motivating employees to continue working effectively throughout this period and to ensuring that individuals have been able to adapt to such a different way of working. To quote Maya Angelou, ‘people won’t remember what you do or say, they will remember how you made them feel’. 

Throughout the pandemic remote working and the impact of furloughing has put a huge strain on everyone at every level of organisations. Employees’ mental and physical health are crucial factors that influence workforce resilience and the past six months have pushed our health and wellbeing to the limits, whether directly or indirectly. And it looks like there isn’t going to be a “quick fix”.

Working remotely has prompted many businesses and managers to place a greater level of trust in employees. We know that autonomy is a key motivational driver, allowing some team members to flourish and work more productively. As a result, this has enabled teams to increase their productivity as a whole and work as a stronger collective group. This raises questions about how best to monitor and record such things – another article in itself.

While it seemed that we may be returning to some normality this summer, it appears now that we will be continuing with a lot of remote working for some time under recent government advice. Businesses that had been previously tempted to revert to ‘old ways’ prematurely, will no longer be able to, and instead will have to come to terms with the idea that this way of working, and living, is going to be around for some time, if not forever. 

It is important to recognise that, whilst businesses have relied on management to keep operations moving and to motivate their teams, this sudden change to the working environment is likely to have been a real challenge for many managers to navigate themselves. Managers are often required to boost the morale of their team with enthusiasm and optimism but, to do this effectively, these individuals need the right support from their senior team too. It is crucial that businesses focus on providing training to equip managers with the skills they need to support their team through difficult times and face the challenge head on. 

The role of management in the ‘new normal’

Many businesses are now recognising the pandemic as an opportunity, or inflection point, to press the ‘reset’ button on the way they operate. Going forward, humanising work must now be the priority which means two things.

Firstly, it is crucial that businesses prioritise and invest in that ‘best version of self’, which means supporting an employee’s mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing. The relationship between human health and productivity has been widely studied and we are well aware of critical factors– such as rising cortisol levels caused by stress and overworking – that can inhibit optimal human performance and wellbeing. Secondly, organisational resilience means designing the physical workspace to reflect different modes of working and building a workplace culture that unlocks innovation and creativity. Businesses must also build a technology infrastructure that supports and lifts humans to a new level of performance and creativity.

It is vital that businesses can come around to this way of thinking because employees that are unable to trust and respect their leaders will feel their internal fire – that powers motivation and high-level performance – be extinguished. At best you end up with presenteeism and at worst people exit the business, leading a less than complimentary review on Glassdoor… 

The role of the manager in the ‘new normal’ must be focused on unlocking intrinsic motivation across the wider team, which is why emotional intelligence is so critical. In this brave new world managers must take more responsibility for how they ‘show up’, as their behaviour and attitude towards work sets the tone for the rest of the team.

This rate of change is likely to differ from one organisation to the next, with those that remain mired in old paradigms likely to fail in the long term. Business ‘talent’ is increasingly more attuned to the impact of ‘bad bosses’ and ‘toxic culture’, and as a result these employees are far more selective about who they choose to work for. 

The past six months have acted as a bit of a social experiment – forcing businesses and individuals to change everything they have become accustomed to, and it appears this will continue for at least another six months. It is important that businesses have the courage to reflect on this difficult time and to identify the practices that have worked well, rather than immediately reverting back to the old – and likely now outdated – ways of working. 

If empowering great teams is the best bet for the future manager, then we must be thinking about and preparing for the candidate of the future and what that means in terms of attracting and retaining talent in the 21st century. 

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