The line manager – key to unlocking wellbeing at work

Guest blog by Paul Barrett, Head of wellbeing, Bank Workers Charity

We all know the saying, ‘People don’t leave their job; they leave their manager.’ Of course, it’s a rather crude statement but the reason it resonates is that it contains a kernel of truth that we can all recognise. There is a growing appreciation that line managers are the biggest influence on employee wellbeing, for good or for bad.

The role of managers has been the subject of much research over the last five years, and the findings are concerning. Investors in People estimate that poor people management costs UK businesses £84bn a year. The Business Times reported in 2013 on a Gallup poll of US workers showing that poor management was the number one reason why employees leave their job. Other Gallup research in 2015 found that one in two people have quit their job to get away from their manager, at some point in their career.

By any reckoning this suggests we have a real problem. Yet if we explore what happens when line managers have strong people skills we may find a way forward. Good people management is associated with increased levels of trust, sense of purpose, staff retention and job satisfaction among employees, all of which are linked to higher levels of employee wellbeing and productivity. In some ways this is telling us what we intuitively know; that we go the extra mile for a manager who cares care about us as an individual, who is supportive and who is interested in our career development. The implications are clear - it’s critical to have people with good soft skills in line management roles.

So what can businesses do to turn things around?  The first thing is to start recruiting the right people. Line manager’s roles have become more complex yet the thinking behind their recruitment remains stuck in the past. The paucity of science underpinning recruitment means that managers continue to be selected predominantly on the basis of their technical skills. In one study, by Gallup, first-time line managers were asked why they were recruited into their roles and the most common responses were because of success in their previous role or through longevity of tenure. Other Gallup research found that only one employee in 10 has the range of skills and talents to manage a team. The problem is that our selection processes are inadequate and we’re not picking the best people. Indeed, 82% of businesses are estimated to fail to get the right people into management posts. The UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) says there is a real difficulty in finding line managers who are emotionally intelligent and able to motivate others. Yet, as we move further into the 21st century, these are the very skills and traits that are going to become most important. Studies suggest that jobs requiring strong interpersonal skills will dominate, as more and more technical jobs become automated.

What I’d like to see are recruitment processes that actively explore and test out candidates’ soft skills in a meaningful way through psychometric testing and exacting scenario questions at interview. As long as we focus primarily on technical skills we’re letting down the managers themselves. They are being shoehorned into roles to which they’re unsuited, which will ultimately frustrate them, and we’re also letting down their subordinates who will not get the quality of management they deserve.

Training is also an issue. Most first-time managers are promoted without preparatory training and are simply dropped in at the deep end. The Chartered Management Institute says of line management training, ‘it’s too little too late.’ Only 25% of businesses, it says, are good at training line managers prior to appointment. The ILM found that four out of five businesses regularly promote people into management roles without any training.

I’d like to see all first-time line managers receive people skills training, so they're not facing a sink or swim reality in their new role. And however it’s delivered, the training should include experiential components that develop people’s empathic skills and their ability to confidently handle difficult situations with sensitivity. There’s no reason why existing line managers can’t undergo the same training, as many of them will undoubtedly be deficient in their people skills.

Despite all I’ve said, we need to be careful not to demonise line managers. There are many who do possess the personality traits and skills to manage people well. But to do so they need a facilitative organisational culture. Most businesses reward delivery on task so it’s not surprising that, given their busy work demands, managers focus primarily on this area. This approach can mean that even those with all the right attributes can struggle to find the time to spend on their people responsibilities.  And that’s where businesses have a key role to play: managers need to be encouraged to employ people skills and behaviours and be given the resources, especially the time, to do so.

Finally, I’d like to see businesses give managers a much more explicit role in relation to the wellbeing of their teams. Wellbeing responsibilities need to be made explicit in job descriptions so that managers regard them as central, rather than peripheral to their work. This approach could then be reinforced through performance review by featuring wellbeing prominently in objectives and the business monitoring performance against them as seriously as it does the more hard-nosed objectives.

Line managers also have a key role to play in relation to any wellbeing strategies or programmes provided to employees, with more businesses each year developing comprehensive wellbeing strategies. If these are to succeed, it’s vital that they’re not viewed as the exclusive remit of HR; otherwise, they’ll fail to have the impact that they should. Different parts of the business all have roles to play, including leaders in championing the programmes. But line managers have arguably the most important role of all by promoting the well-being programme to their teams, encouraging its use and, ideally, modelling behaviours themselves.

These are the kinds of steps I believe we need to take to develop line managers who possess the full spectrum of skills they require to make the strongest contribution to the success of the business and to the wellbeing of their teams.

Visit The Wellbeing Pulse on the Bank Workers Charity website for more blogs and information about the charity’s work.

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  • ‘People don’t leave their job; they leave their manager’. I absolutely agree with this statement. If its not their manager, then it is a difficult colleague.

  • Losing staff, and hiring them and training them are huge costs to any business.  Employee wellbeing should be centre state in any organization.  One business I work with has employee risk on its management meeting agenda - highlighting those areas of the business under strain, needing extra support etc.  Its a people focused way to ensure that you recognise that people are indeed your most important asset.