Line managers often come in for a bad rap, but often problem lies with how organisations are structured rather than the individuals involved. HR needs to take a stand and rethink management altogether, say experts
Warnings about the general quality and ineffectiveness of UK managers have abounded for years. Back in 2012, a report from the-then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that nearly half (43%) of UK managers rated their own line manager as ineffective, and nearly three-quarters of organisations in England reported a deficit of management and leadership skills.
More recently, the CIPD’s HR Outlook winter 2016-17 found that a significant proportion of HR professionals believed senior leaders’ performance and people management skills to be severely lacking.
So why are technical experts still being shoehorned into people management roles that are clearly unsuitable for them? Why has the preference for separating technical and management career tracks not spread beyond a select group of organisations?
“Historically, we have hired people to manage tasks, and then we’ve expected them to manage people as well – almost as an aside,” says Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer at Benefex. “And I think that’s prevalent in a huge percentage of organisations. You have almost created the conflict from the start; you have people with the skills to manage tasks, and yet at the same time they are kind of expected to manage people. You’ve got HR on their backs saying, ‘we need you to manage these people’, and they are understandably saying, ‘that’s not my strength, that’s not what I do’.”
“Unfortunately, we still consistently promote people into line manager roles because of their technical ability rather than their desire to lead people,” says Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR and former HR director at the BBC.
“Historically, we have hired people to manage tasks, and then expected them to manage people almost as an aside”
“We have a longstanding cadre of line managers who are not going to, overnight, become the ones that want to do people management well. If we start spending as much time ensuring that great people leaders are promoted as we do designing processes to cope with the bad ones, maybe we will have some impact.”
“I think we are going to see more acceptance of the case for splitting out that task management vs people management,” says Kendall. “So if you have great task managers, don’t waste their time on managing people. Instead, bring in distinct, great people managers to spend time with individuals – kind of like the whole [HR] business partner model.” She adds that Benefex’s career ladders are shifting to separate out technical experts from people redesigned into a subject-matter expert role – one that is still senior, but without the same leadership responsibilities. “Telling one of our software developers to spend half their time in one-to-one meetings is a waste of their talent. They should be spending 100% of their time on what they are good at.”
While it’s unfeasible for all organisations to redesign their structures and career paths in 2018 to enable technical experts to do more of what they are good at (and what motivates them), this goal should give HR practitioners pause for thought as they consider how best to attract, engage and retain employees in the competitive labour market.
“We have to recognise that what we’ve got now isn’t really serving anybody well: not the organisation, and certainly not its people”
One first step, suggests Perry Timms, founder of PTHR and author of Transformational HR, is to take a “hard look at what exactly roles were created for, when they were put in, and what the need is around them now. We might reach a point where we have a bit of an amnesty; where people who are in leadership and subject-matter expert roles now might benefit from being redesigned into a subject-matter expert role – one that is still senior, but without the same leadership responsibilities. We have to recognise that what we’ve got now isn’t really serving anybody well: not the organisation, and certainly not its people. It will take bravery to do that.”
But, with nearly half (46%) of HR professionals we surveyed saying they planned to focus on line managers in 2018, things might be looking up.
“This is the year when HR needs to take a truly systemic look at how it supports people to perform in organisations, including line managers,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD. “How can HR support the leadership team to provide role models, so when people are coming into their first line manage role, they have others to look up to? How do we recruit good line managers? How do we support a coaching culture?
“If HR can create the conditions for line managers to be a success – which they will appreciate – it means HR will spend less of its time complaining about line manager capability, and more of their time enhancing it,” he says.
This article is an extract from CIPHR’s free white paper, From evidence to automation: eight trends that’ll shape the HR profession in 2018. Download it here.