Line mangers are in a uniquely difficult position. As both managers and managees, they take orders from above which they then pass down to the people they are responsible for. Rather like a middle child, who receives neither the privileges of the first-born or the indulgences of the youngest, line managers can feel excluded, with no clear place in an organisation.
Yet line managers are the crucial interface between an organisation’s leaders and its frontline workforce. As such, they need to be consummate communicators. However, in today’s increasingly fast-paced, process-driven and technology-focussed world of work, all too few are.
What line managers do
Line managers typically recruit, coach, train, give feedback, report on performance, and liaise and coordinate with their line management peers.
The best line managers will be actively involved with each of their team members. Every day they’ll provide support, offer encouragement and give feedback on how they’re doing. As a result, line managers have a direct influence on employee satisfaction and engagement – and on their organisation’s customer satisfaction scores, productivity and financial results.
Although it’s the leaders in the C-suite who develop and approve their organisation’s strategy, it’s line managers who make sure the strategy is delivered. This means they’re well-positioned to identify problems and, collectively, often know more about what’s going on than anyone else in the organisation.
The rise of AI and the global skills shortage
As the scope and reach of AI advances, so new job opportunities are being created. In 2019, IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that the rise of AI means more than 120 million workers worldwide will need retraining in behavioural skills over the next three years1.
The skills these workers need to develop include communication, teamwork, ethics and integrity, writing, thinking, analysis, flexibility and creativity. All the things that humans excel at and that machines can’t do. The IBM survey goes on to confirm that employers see these skills as critical to their success and as a result now rank behavioural skills above technical skills, a change in just two years.
These behavioural skills are usually called soft skills. But this is a misnomer. There is nothing soft about the ability to communicate in a way that delivers change; that informs and shares; that creates and maintains valuable connections; and that, as a result of all this, drives consistent and sustainable improvements in performance and financial growth.
Of course, this skills gap is a top concern for many employers who understand they need to act to mitigate the threat it poses. And they must act fast as the time it will take to fill this skills gap is growing. IBM notes in its survey that it now takes 36 days to close a skills gap as opposed to three in 2014.
This is because it takes more time to learn and develop behavioural skills than to teach a technical skill. IBM also notes that behavioural skills are best learned through hands-on experience rather than structured learning programmes such as online courses and webinars. This is why my company, Miticom, bases all its training on experiential learning. We help line managers, through their own experience, develop innovative communication skills they can immediately put into practice.
The squeezed and frozen middle
Line managers have been under stress for the past decade, as the effects of the global financial crisis continue to bite. Many organisations have seen them as the easiest level to rationalise and as a result there are fewer of them doing more of the work. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in a study looking at how to help organisations achieve their strategic ambitions2, described line managers as the frozen middle.
Yet, as the EIU report says, businesses are highly dependent on line managers. They are central to the day-to-day delivery of a firm’s overall strategy yet are under the most scrutiny in terms of the value they bring.
If line managers are so integral to success, it’s vital businesses invest in them to make sure they have the skills they need to carry out their own work and to train those they are responsible for.
The true cost of undervaluing your line managers
According to a new report from the CIPD and Simplyhealth3, over the last year 37% of UK businesses have seen an increase in stress-related absence. The research surveyed 1,078 HR professionals and found that heavy workloads, often as a result of poor management, is the top cause of stress-related absence at 62%. The second largest contributing factor is management style, which has risen from 32% to 43% in the last year.
Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said, ‘Managers should be helping to alleviate stress among their staff, not contributing to it. But too many managers are being set up to fail because they haven’t received adequate training, despite them often being the first person employees will turn to when they have a problem.’
As Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company famously said, ‘The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay!’
1.IBM: The skills gap is not a myth but can be addressed with real solutions
2.The Economist Intelligence Unit supported by Brightline: Preventing a frozen middle
3.CIPD and Simplyhealth: Health and Wellbeing at Work report, 2019
Miti Ampoma, Founder and Director – Miticom Communications Training