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Paul Barrett
Head of Wellbeing
Paul Barrett

Developing line managers’ soft skills is the way forward on wellbeing

Authors: Paul Barrett Head of Wellbeing at Bank Workers Charity

10 February 2015

If I had money to invest in one thing, it would be line manager training.’ declared Dame Carol Black at the recent HR Directors summit. The previous week Professor Cary Cooper speaking at the “Why Mental Health Matters” Conference described poor line management as the biggest issue that HR Directors face in the UK saying 'our line managers are not fit for purpose; they simply don’t have the interpersonal skills'.

What is interesting about these statements is not the coincidence of their timing but the fact that they are still being made. The soft skills deficit in UK line managers has been recognised for many years. Since 2007, when the HSE produced Management competencies for reducing stress at work  there has been a plethora of behaviourally focussed guidelines to help managers to address everything from supporting employees return to work  to managing conflict in the workplace. And yet the problem remains.

The centrality of the line manager to employee wellbeing and engagement, both important contributors to high performance and productivity, is well established. At the same time poor managerial behaviours have been identified as a major source of sickness absence and are also linked to employee disengagement and stress.

Nor are organisations unaware of the skills gap. Recently I attended an event run by a large employer about improving the way mental health problems were handled in the workplace. The goal was to create a climate in which employees would feel able to disclose that they were struggling with a mental health problem and to seek help. One of the senior managers attending spoke up to say 'the problem here lies with our line managers who just don’t have the understanding, or the skills, to deal with these issues with the sensitivity that’s needed.' 

Mental health is not the only area in which line manager’s people skills are lacking. It equally applies to the handling of a whole range of common work scenarios such as having conversations around poor performance, responding to requests for flexible working, managing return to work or dealing with a workplace dispute. The impact for organisations cannot be underestimated - key determinants of future employee performance, such as levels of trust, respect, engagement and wellbeing, can be irreparably damaged.

There are also implications here for organisational wellbeing strategies. UK spending on employee wellbeing has been increasing year-on -year, with growing numbers of businesses viewing it as a strategic imperative. However these strategies are seriously compromised if the organisation’s managerial tier lack good people management skills, as their day-to-day behaviours are pushing the business in the opposite direction, undermining engagement and reducing employee wellbeing.

I think there are a number of practical steps that employers could take to address the problem:

  • Mandatory high quality, soft skills training for line managers 

    Make high quality, soft skills training mandatory for all line managers, equipping them to build strong relationships at work and to adopt a supportive management style. Ideally this could form part of the induction process for first time managers.

  • Organisational culture 

    This too has a role to play. The emphasis in many businesses on hitting targets can mean managers become so focused on these responsibilities that they don’t find the time to build up the good team and individual relationships on which ironically, strong delivery depends. Businesses leaders should place equal emphasis on line manager’s acquisition and use of the right kinds of behavioural skills. And measuring / rewarding these behaviours through the performance management system, would increase the likelihood of them sticking.

  • Organisational recruitment practices

    These frequently prioritise technical job competencies over people management skills, creating a managerial cadre ill equipped to deal with the complex people problems that surface in all businesses. Introducing recruitment processes that actively identify and select for the traits and soft skills found in good line managers would make it possible to filter out those whose inter-personal skills are poor.

Measures like this I believe could, over time, help transform a situation that has persisted for far too long and help to create a UK managerial cohort that is truly up to the task.