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Line managers are used to getting flak. HR often blames them for their people initiatives falling down on the shop floor because they don’t follow through with the right actions. Meanwhile, they are held directly responsible by senior management if performance or productivity dips. And it doesn’t stop there – a Gallup poll of more 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the primary reason people quit their jobs is because of a bad boss or immediate supervisor. The survey discovered that 75% of workers who voluntarily left their jobs did so for reasons that could be directly influenced by their line manager. While not always justified, such pressures and statistics do serve to underline the pivotal role line managers have in the organisation.

Boosting employee engagement

The behaviour of your first line managers is especially impactful when it comes to the area of employee engagement and happiness. Given the body of statistical evidence to support it, few employers would doubt the link between high levels of engagement and high performance and productivity. And as the ones with an everyday relationship with employees, a line manager’s interactions and behaviour will play a crucial part in how people feel about coming to work in the morning. Tom Debenham, managing director of engagement specialists, People Insight that found managers account for as much as 70% of the variance in employment engagement scores. “Bad line managers have a massive impact on employee motivation, desire to go the extra mile, absenteeism, sick days and underperformance,” he says. “The line manager is the ‘face’ of the organisation to the employee.”

Line managers are also the biggest determining factor in many of the practical areas that equal contentment at work for employees. This isn’t just to do with pay and reward but also personal growth and wellbeing. “Managers are often the gateway to a company’s learning and development opportunities and help employees plot their route through an organisation,” says Alison Butler, head of client engagement at workplace engagement firm, Best Companies. “Managers set workloads and an example, helping employees see what an acceptable balance between work and home is for the organisation.”

A lack of training, personality flaws, time pressures and low levels of emotional intelligence are among the reasons that line managers don’t put the time and effort that they should into ensuring their charges are happy and engaged. As Debenham points out, many are promoted based on their operational merit and still don’t receive proper management training. He calls for objective measures around line management to be part of a manager’s appraisal and adds: “If line managers are themselves managed well, and feel the benefit, they are more likely to create the same feeling in their own team.”

Managing teams under pressure

Increasing financial constraints and an uncertain political climate has meant a tough time for many organisations and line managers have borne the brunt of the pressure to keep things running smoothly under difficult conditions. As the recovery strengthens though, managers need to ensure more time is released for focusing on engagement as well as putting some of their softer skills to use. “[Good line managers] listen to their staff, demonstrating that their opinion/input is valuable,” says Debenham. “Even when time is pressured, a quick coffee, instant message, walk to a meeting together creates opportunities to listen and be present.”

When designing its model for engagement, Best Companies analysed the results of a pilot study to assess what made up employee engagement. Eight different factors emerged and among the most prominent of those was ‘my manager’. The study found a number of key behaviours that must be in place for a manager to be able to drive engagement: ‘motivating’ which includes selling the direction and vision of the organisation and ensuring others can see how their role impacts the bigger picture; ‘considering’, which means recognising what is being asked of people, ensuring it’s realistic and achievable and supporting and rewarding individuals; ‘conversing’, which ensures the channels are open for effective two-way communication and sharing information in an open and honest way; and ‘caring’ which is understanding that people have a life outside of work and respecting their time for family, friends and outside interests/hobbies. “The better a company’s managers score in these areas, the stronger an impact there will be on engagement across an organisation, as they can impact all areas of the employee environment,” says Butler.

First line manager training is essential

Much of what constitutes the right kind of behaviour for increasing engagement sounds like good common sense but in reality many managers find it difficult to embed it into everyday life. Senior management must ensure though that line managers are given the necessary support, training and time to enable them to focus on staff engagement. All organisations would like to be seen as a great place to work but most bosses now realise that happy workforces also make good business sense. “If customers are not treated well, due to being served by unhappy, demotivated and stressed employees, they will leave and look to have their needs met elsewhere,” says Debenham, who adds that any good intentions/initiatives at the top level are unlikely to turn into positive actions if there is a bad line manager between them and the workforce. “It’s like a game of lost in translation. Any messages that come from senior leaders are likely to get lost, misinterpreted, or worse, changed to suit the manager who is out to serve themselves rather than their team or the business as a whole.”

First line manager training

If you’d like to find out about The Oxford Group’s First Line Manager training offer and ways you can improve your own line management training and delivery, view our Impact: High intensity toolkit for managers or get in touch with us to discuss how we can help address your individual challenges and opportunities.