What do you do if a line manager is terrible at managing people?

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People leave bosses, not jobs, as the saying goes. Managers have a huge influence – for better or worse – on an employee’s wellbeing, with a recent CIPD report called ‘The importance of people management’, showing a direct link between poor managers and negative mental health.

The good news is that you can train “everyone to be a great line manager”, according to Organisational Consultant Charlotte Wiseman, who argues people management skills can be learned. The bad news is that not every line manager is interested in doing the (hard) work to improve as it doesn’t align with everyone’s goals or visions of success.

“You can give people the best training in the world, but if they aren’t bought into the training, it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money,” says Wiseman. “So a big part of what we do is spend time making sure managers are buying into the training and helping them understand how it benefits them.”

Reluctant line managers

One of the common obstacles is that individuals have had bad experiences with line managers in the past, and so they are reluctant to become one themselves because they have a preconceived idea of how leaders behave. A common response Wiseman hears is “I’m here because my company sent me, but I don’t think I want to be a people leader”.

“So, in these cases, the training is around showing them that they can be a nice person, human and authentic to who they are, as a manager; they don’t have to turn into some kind of automaton!” says Wiseman. “There’s a bit of a reframe that is necessary to help them understand what being a people manager means.”

It can also be a challenge to get managers to buy into the importance of wellbeing, with Sandwell College’s HR Lead Sarah Keast saying the organisation “occasionally encounters some initial resistance” to this training.

Integrating line manager training

The way Sandwell gets around this, which has proved very effective, is to “integrate wellbeing concepts across various aspects of management training, conferences and meetings”, as well as key milestones like induction and appraisals, and ad hoc events like staff development days. This all demonstrates the “pervasive” importance of the topic in all areas of leadership:

“We’ve found that even initially sceptical managers quickly come to understand the significance of these skills and often become enthusiastic advocates, frequently requesting additional training in this area. By addressing these challenges head-on and adapting our approach, we’ve seen a marked improvement in manager engagement with wellbeing initiatives.”

Upfront investment

Another reality that line managers need to understand is that embedding what they learn from training will require an upfront investment in time and effort, but that this will pay off in the longterm. 

Wiseman says:

“Line managers often go into their job thinking ‘I just need to tell them what to do’. This approach gets the job done once. But what’s much more effective is teaching managers how to coach their team to help build their own problem solving skills, knowledge and insight. Effective line management is not just making sure people are clear on the task; it’s about developing skills and resilience building as you go through the process. It’s an art.”

Sharing experiences

One of the most impactful manager training initiatives that Wellbeing Consultant Francine Watson helped implement was at a global financial services firm, was the live online “clinics”. For these, experienced senior managers would talk to less experienced managers about real life examples. What trainees appreciated most was the leaders’ honesty in dealing with trickier, tense situations and difficult conversations.

“The speakers wouldn’t just say ‘this is how I achieved that’. They would be very open and say things like ‘this is where I really screwed up’ and people could ask them any questions,” says Watson.

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A common concern raised was the fact line managers were worried, in discussing a wellbeing related topic, that they would feel out of their depth, or it would be awkward. Or, if they did broach a tricky topic, they’d worry the team member wouldn’t open up.

AI going one step further

“So we did a lot of work around raising awareness of the EAP programme so they understood they don’t have to be a psychologist, or resolve an issue for the team member. And if they don’t open up, that’s OK, just signpost them to the right support,” says Watson.

“We used the clinics as an opportunity to promote the value of the EAP as a support tool for managers in supporting their team, a place where they could confidentially discuss concerns/ scenarios with the EAP for practical guidance on offering their team appropriate support.”

AI powered training platform Kinhub has gone one step further and taken away the awkwardness of some wellbeing conversations by enabling team members to inform their manager of sensitive information via its system. 

Just in time training

For instance, say a team member wants to tell his manager that he’s just been diagnosed as neurodivergent, he can avoid feeling uncomfortable and use Kinhub.

“The line manager will then receive a notification, but at the same time they will receive training information on how to manage a neurodivergent member of staff and the types of questions they could ask, or conversations they could have. That way the manager is providing an environment in which that team member can thrive,” says Erika Brodnock MBE, founder of Kinhub.

She believes this ‘just in time’ style manager training is the future and much more efficient than the traditional type of training which unrealistically expects managers to retain information months after they’ve been on a course. 

The future of training is personalised

“If employers rely on sending people on traditional training courses, they will always be behind the curve,” she says. “A manager could go on a menopause training course but then not have anyone on their team experiencing menopause for years, and they’re supposed to remember what the training advised?”

In addition to receiving information curated via AI, managers using Kinhub can also ask questions and receive personalised feedback, or they can arrange a coaching call with a (human!) coach. Typically, men will ask the AI bot around 40 questions before they will book a session with a coach, whereas for women this figure is only around 15.

Brodnock also believes the future of training is personalised, rather than generic rote learning. She expands the example of a team member informing her manager via Kinhub that she is experiencing menopause symptoms, saying:

Training to create inclusive cultures

“Kinhub will then give the manager information about the menopause and how to manage her best. But we’re also learning about people as much as we can so we can make the information as nuanced as possible. For instance, if the person experiencing menopause is also trans, then their menopause experience is going to be very different and line managers will need different tools. To foster diversity, we need to train managers in the moment for who they have in front of them and move away from a one-size-fits all approach.”

There has been such a “revolving door” when it comes to diverse talent, says Brodnock, partly because line managers haven’t been creating the right environment for these team members. She believes personalised training alongside coaching enables managers to create more inclusive cultures where “we don’t just recruit diverse people, but we facilitate them to stay and thrive”.

However, as we touched on at the start of this feature, you can give employees all the training and whizzy tech in the world, but if their heart is not in people management then you’re on a hiding to nothing. This is often the case in more technical careers where specialists, in order to progress in their careers, find themselves reluctantly managing team members.

Two streams for career progression

What progressive companies are now doing is creating two streams for career progression, recognising that not everyone wants – or can – manage people effectively. One stream progresses through people management, the other through specialist expertise of so-called ‘individual contributors’.

“It’s something we’ve been helping companies develop recently,” says Wiseman. “And it relates to burnout because a key contributor to burnout is doing things that don’t align with your personal values.”

Also, employers nowadays should not always assume that employees automatically want progression and more responsibility/ money. Some people, often the younger generations, are much more interested in enjoying their work being of interest and the environment being healthy.

“There’s definitely been a shift,” says Wiseman. “Values are really important. Not everyone is willing, for all the money in the world, to sacrifice their lives or wellbeing. An integrated quality of life is their priority.”

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