Role of Line Managers in Organizational functioning

Role of Line Managers in Organizational functioning

The term ‘line-manager’ normally refers to organizational employees in the lower layers of the management hierarchy (for example, team leader, supervisor roles). The term of line manager traditionally stands for the position representing the first level of the management to whom non-managerial employees report. Line managers are known by a number of different names such as manager, front line manager, supervisor, team leader, and project leader.

Line managers have responsibility for managing individual employees or teams. They, in turn, then report to a higher level of management on the performance and well-being of the employees or teams they are responsible for. They tend to perform the same tasks as their teams or have recent experience of the work. The number of employees that a line manager is responsible for can vary from one or two in smaller organizations to upto as many as 30 in larger organizations. They are frequently being regarded as the voice of management on the front line.

The traditional role of the line manager typically includes (i) day-to-day people management, (ii) managing budgets and operational costs in their area of working, (iii) planning and organizing the allocation of work and preparing the roster of employees under them, (iv) providing technical expertise and guidance to the employees under them, (v) carrying out the quality control, (vi) measuring operational performance, (vii) customer care and dealing with queries of the regulatory agencies, and (viii) monitoring work processes and systems. The critical role of people management played by the line managers include executing the HR (human resource) practices on the work floor, monitoring of attendance, coaching and development, discipline and grievances, involvement and communication and performance appraisal.  As regards implementing the HR (human resource) practices on the work floor, the line managers have an unquestioned crucial role to play.

The work of the line managers directly affects the performance of the organization since the line managers direct the work of individual employees and are directly responsible for the achievement of organizational objectives. They achieve results through teams in the organization. Line managers’ level of accountability is higher in comparison to that of their subordinates. They are accountable to senior management in the organization for the work done by individual employees. However, line managers are placed in the lower of the management hierarchy. In most cases, employees who report to the line managers frequently have no managerial or supervisory roles in the organization.

In the past the main job of the line managers was to ‘tell and monitor’. This means that, traditionally, line managers were responsible for instructing people on what work to do and then oversee the work to make sure that it was carried out correctly. For some line managers, there is still an element of this within their role. However, a combination of new technology and changing working practices has created a more complex picture and means that line management now has much more of a focus on the individual employees.

The role of the line manager is changing in the present day environment. Line managers are now frequently crucial in making the difference between low-performing and high-performing organizations. The middle level managers need to use their highly-developed interpersonal skills to engage the employees. Improving employee performance is becoming more and more about influencing the choice employees make about how well they decide to do their job, and line managers have a very high influence on the choice employees make. It is a fact that the line managers cannot always control all the issues which have an influence on job satisfaction, such as pay, job design, or workplace working environment, yet they can do a lot to trigger the ‘feel good’ factor in the employees which helps to motivate and engage the employees. This ‘feel good’ factor is strongly influenced by the line managers since they (i) help employees see where they fit into the broader organizational vision, (ii) respect, develop, praise, and reward their employees, (iii) value the voice of employees and listen to their views and concerns, and (iv) build relationships based on trust and shared values.

The key agents for implementing the HR practices are the line managers since they interact with front line employees in a frequent and timely manner. Line managers have HR management responsibilities by virtue of their frequent and direct interactions with their team members and subordinates. Hence, Involving line managers for implementing HR policies and procedures is a practice followed by several organizations. Organizations involve line managers to a varying degree in HR functions and give HR responsibilities to the line managers rather than personnel specialists. For delegation of the responsibility of HR issues, line managers are provided with an opportunity to engage with day-to-day people management decision-making, In turn, HR specialists work on achieving closer alignment of the organizational systems and processes with corporate objectives, while remaining sensitive to external environmental changes. Tab 1 shows the expected line managers’ roles in promoting HR management system strength.

Tab 1 Role of line managers in promoting HR management system strength
HR system strengthRole of line managers
DistinctivenessVisibility Informing employees about the HR practices
Understandability Making sure that employees understand the HR practices
Legitimacy of authority Following the instructions from the top management team and HR department
Relevance Enacting employee-focused HR practices, e.g. career development-based training
ConsistencyInstrumentality Showing the causal link between top performance and rewards
Validity Communicating with the HR department about the feasibility of HR practices
Consistent HRM messages Understanding the HRM message and sending it to the employees
ConsensusFairness Making sure top performers are recognized. Taking employees’ opinions into consideration
Agreement Supporting the decisions made by the top management team and HR department

For the distinctiveness of the HR management system, line managers play an important role in informing employees about HR practices (visibility), explaining how these HR practices work (understandability), following the instructions from the top management and HR department (legitimacy of authority), and demonstrating care for everyone, e.g. providing performance feedback (relevance). For the consistency of the HR management system, line managers need to show the causal link between top performance and rewards (instrumentality). For example, line managers seek the opportunity to provide employees with recognition or reward when they perform their work well or when they have improved their work efficiency.

Line managers need to provide support for employees’ career development. In addition, to achieve the validity of HR practices, line managers need to communicate with the HR department about the feasibility of the HR practices. In sending consistent HR management messages over time, line managers need to understand these messages and send them clearly to employees. As line managers communicate with employees very frequently, they know their subordinates’ needs and are able to find the best way to communicate the message to them more effectively.

The last feature of HR management system strength is consensus including fairness and agreement. Fairness covers distributive, procedural and interactional justice. Various studies have shown that the line managers can make a large difference in affecting employees’ perceived justice. Line managers take charge of distributing work, content and resources. Their decisions on these aspects are critical in the formation of employees’ psychological contract, which is an unwritten contract between employees and the management trust and commitment. For ensuring distributive justice, line managers make sure that employees’ work gets recognized within and across the teams. For procedural justice, line managers ensure that the resources are distributed openly and fairly. For example, only those better performers receive rewards. For interactional justice, line managers listen to the employees and consider their opinions when making decisions. High agreement needs line managers to understand, accept and promote the specific HR practices among the employees.

HR department can initiate new policies and practices but it is the line managers who have the main responsibility for implementing them. In other words, ‘HR department proposes but the line manager disposes’. HR management is too important to be left to personnel managers.

It is not enough for the organizational management to have HR practices or policies in place. Only when these practices are implemented, these practices create value for the organization, and the practices can be implemented in an effective way through the line managers. Overall, the line managers’ role is to bring HR policies to life and thereby ensure an effective HR management implementation. Theoretically, this means that line managers are given primary responsibility for actually implementing HR practices. Their contribution to make the ‘intended’ HR practices to the ‘actual’ HR practices is immense.  In implementing HR management strategies, line managers have the dual responsibility of managing individual employees’ work-related activities as well as playing a vital role in transforming strategic HR management initiatives into practice in the organization. Effective involvement of the line managers in HR functions brings appreciable improvement in the organizational performance as shown in Fig 1.

Fig 1 Involvement of the line managers in HR functions

For employees, line managers play an important role in how employees experience their work. How line managers implement HR practices has implications for how employees perceive and align with those practices. In other words, the strength of the HR management system is heavily dependent on the line managers’ role. The line managers’ key role in the implementation of HR management has received increasing attention in various organizations due to their relevance in creating a strong HR management system.

The relationship between the HR functions and line managers has also been subject to a number of changes in recent years. Responsibility for many core HR activities has now shifted from HR department to the work area. This means that line managers are no longer just supervising the employees under them. Instead, it is becoming increasingly common for the line managers to carry out a range of HR activities. Where there is a HR department executive is attached to their department (a practice normally followed in large organizations), the line managers work in conjunction with the HR department executive. However, line managers are now taking on full responsibility for HR duties themselves. This frequently includes (i) employee welfare (something which is always carried out by HR department traditionally), (ii) dealing with ‘difficult’ situations such as disciplinary matters or attendance issues, (iii) hearing grievances, (iv) carrying out performance appraisals, and (v) providing an important communication link between the employees whom they manage (who work on the ‘shop floor’ or ‘front-line’) and the senior management above.

This means that line managers now need additional skills outside of their area of job specialism to enable them to carry out the people management aspects of their role. Line managers are frequently being promoted from within, which means that they are unlikely to have any formal management education. Frequently line managers find themselves managing individuals without the necessary training which can cause difficulties for both line managers and the employees. Hence, training is an essential area of consideration for the line managers.

It is important that the line managers can help to engage the employees and encourage positive discretionary behaviour in them by (i) bringing the organizational policies and procedures to life in the workplace which frequently means giving things like the time and care to the organizational policies and procedures, (ii) making a connection with employees since the line managers are best placed to talk to the employees, listen to their concerns, and coach them as needed, (iii) leading by example means that  the line managers are always to demonstrate the importance of significant issues like work pace, discipline, and safety etc., and (iv) managing performance by always giving praise and positive feedback for work well done. At the same time line managers are to guide and coach the employees under them to improve the employees’ performance if it is not upto the standard. This includes holding of the difficult conversation when it is needed. In turn, line managers are to be coached by senior managers so that they can develop their management skills, play an active role in decision making and discuss any problems with them they can be facing.

Line managers are critical to the success of the organization since they have a considerable influence on the behaviour of the employees and their overall attitude towards the organization. Hence, it is necessary that the line managers are carefully selected for ensuring that they have the right skills and qualities to motivate employees and deal with difficult situations. They are to be supported by strong organizational values which are to show clearly the behaviours expected. They are to be trained in all those skill areas which are needed to enable them (i) to carry out their duties effectively, (ii) to develop their own careers, and (iii) to fulfill the people management requirements of the job. They are to be confident that their own managers are going to treat them with respect. They are to be encouraged to reflect on their own behaviour and how they are perceived by those they manage and to commit to the people management aspects of their role through clearly drawn up job descriptions, performance appraisal and on-going communication. Further, they are to be given a balanced workload which allows sufficient time available to them to carry out their people management duties and to focus on the performance management.

Line managers have a crucial impact on employee engagement as they act as the interface between the organization and the employees working under them. Employees are vital to the success of the organization, and are the key to increased productivity and effectiveness. The person who can get the best out of both individuals and teams is frequently the person who is most closely with them on a daily basis, and this is usually their line manager. Line managers are in the best possible position to (i) talk to the employees (both casual chats and more focused discussions), (ii) listen to their concerns, problems and anxieties, (iii) counsel and coach employees as needed, (iv) find out about employees’ ideas and suggestions, (v) check they are clear on their individual targets and are on track to meet these, and (vi) ensure employees are motivated and committed to the organization.

For meeting these people management responsibilities, the line managers are faced with an enormous wide range of issues and problems every day. For example they need to (i) find out why an employee is absent and arrange cover if needed, (ii) sort out a disagreement between individuals or teams, (iii) organize a team meeting and plan the agenda, (iv) report to senior management of the department and attend the department meetings, (v) ensure technological and workplace discipline, (vi) ensure that the necessary health and safety procedures are followed at the work place, and (vii) ensure workplace housekeeping. On top of all of this, the line managers are expected to know the precise details of each employee’s job, and also to step in and carry out the ‘front line’ work themselves when needed. This can make the role of a line manager extremely challenging.

For carrying out their duties, line managers face several issues such as (i) juggling with a wide range of duties and responsibilities, (ii) time management and prioritizing of the tasks, (iii) lack of time to deal with employee issues, employee reporting and needed one-to-one sessions with the employees, (iv) a large amount of paperwork because of complicated policies and procedures normally associated with large organizations,  (v) the high level of inter-personal skills needed to deal with their employees and senior management, and (v) an ambiguity in the role they play normally to deal ‘all things to all people.

In fact, in the present day environment, line managers normally now have responsibilities in a wide range of areas. They face pressure from all sides such as (i) senior management expect standards to be maintained and targets to be met, (ii) expectation of fulfilling HR responsibility for employees’ welfare and performance management., (iii) expectation of fulfilling organizational responsibility for issues such as disciplinary, grievance, and attendance, (iv) expectation of managing and motivating the individual employees, and (v) overcoming the external pressure from the various agencies.

There are three of the most challenging areas which are being faced by the line managers. The first challenging area of the job of the line managers is dealing with employee issues. For example the line managers can have to deal with (i) an employee who is regularly late for work because of personal problems, (ii) two employees under him accusing each other of bullying, (iii) jealousy in a team over a certain promotion, (iv) an employee who has been heard using language which is not social or calling names. It takes patience and judgment to resolve these difficult issues, and it can be tempting to act instinctively or just ignore the problems altogether and hope that the problems get sort out themselves. It is important that line managers receive training to help them deal with people management issues, and they are also to be clear, when they need to approach their HR department or the HR department executive attached to the department for help.

The second challenging area of the job of the line managers is that they have to function under a difficult position. They can frequently feel stuck between the expectations of the employees they manage, and the demands of their own senior managers. At the same time, the employees they manage need support, encouragement, leadership, and reward. However, many aspects of good management are learned by example, and so the line managers frequently manage their own employees in the same manner as they are themselves managed by their seniors. One of the main issues with ‘piggy in the middle syndrome’ is that line managers need to communicate with employees and senior managers in different ways. It is necessary and also important for the line managers to interpret and translate the needs of employees and senior management in such a manner so that understanding, trust and cooperation are maintained.

The third challenging area of the job of the line managers is to bring policies and procedures of the organization to life. How successfully line managers are able to deal with the issues they encounter frequently depend on ensuring that the theory contained within organizational policies and procedures is practically implemented on a daily basis within the workplace. The number of policies and procedures in place can vary depending on the size of the organization. However, regardless of how large or small the organization is, it is always important that the line managers are consistent and fair when dealing with employees’ issues and workplace situations. Policies and procedures can provide the necessary guidance which the line managers need, but they need to be used in proper manner. In many cases there can be a gap between a procedure and what actually happens in reality. Further, line managers can always take support of senior manager and benefit from the support in ensuring that policies and procedures work well in practice.

It is necessary for the organizational management to support the line managers, make them more effective, and help them to cope with all the pressures which people management responsibilities normally bring with it. Line managers are similar to any other employee in that they need to be (i) selected, and developed to ensure they have the right skills for the job, (ii) well-managed by their own manager, (iii) trained so that they can carry out their duties effectively and achieve career progression, (iv) given a balanced workload, and (v) coached so that they can deal with various issues of concern.

The relationship which the line managers have with their own senior managers, and also with the organizational top management, is absolutely the key to the way in which they manage their own employees. Well-managed line managers are more likely to be successful within a management role. They display the necessary discretionary behaviour and go on to lead a high performing team. Line managers normally struggle to deliver good people management unless they themselves are managed effectively within a strong framework.  Line managers need to be supported to develop self-confidence and a clear sense of how their role fits into the wider organizational structure. This is to be accompanied by appropriate training, particularly for those who are new to the role of line managers.

Hence, it is important that line managers experience (i) a strong working relationships with their own managers, (ii) good career opportunities and the opportunity to develop their skills, (iii) a positive work-life balance, (iv) the chance to participate and feel involved in decision-making, (v) an open culture which enables them to air grievances or discuss issues and concerns, (vi) a sense of job security, (vii) an environment which encourages them to display desirable management behaviours, and (viii) training in HR policies and procedures.

For line managers, transition from team member to team leader can be very challenging. It is hence important that line managers receive the necessary support and training. Many employees end up in the management roles without the skills and knowledge needed to perform the role successfully. This can be extremely stressful for the manager concerned, and frequently leads to a negative effect on employee motivation and productivity. At the same time, employees expect their line manager to know everything about the way the organization works. For the line managers to perform their job effectively they need training for acquiring skills in a number of essential areas such as (i) communication skills including listening skills and questioning techniques, (ii) motivating the team members and delegating successfully, (iii) promoting a culture of dignity at work, (iv) basic principles of managing discipline and handling grievances, (v) dealing with employees’ absence, (vi) work-life balance, (vii) health and safety procedures, (viii) employees’ supervision and appraisal, (ix) handling of emergencies and difficult situations, and (x) equal opportunities and diversity. Senior management is to ensure that they discuss the line managers training needs regularly and at least on an annual basis as an absolute minimum.

Formal policies, even if only brief, can also provide essential guidance for line managers in areas such as disciplinary, grievance and absence management. Policies and procedures enable line managers to be consistent and fair, and ensure they are compiling with relevant rules and regulations of the organization.

One of the key skills expected from the line managers is their ability to prioritize the range of tasks in their workload. Work issues and HR issues can all build up and make line managers to become a bottleneck due to a high volume of work and too much pressure. Line managers find it easier to manage their workload if (i) policies and procedures are simple, jargon free, and written in plain language, (ii) time is to be made available for certain key tasks such as supervision meetings and annual appraisals, (iii) the volume of work to be carried out each day / week is monitored, (iv) to have some flexibility with the work routine so the line managers can deal with urgent tasks if needed, and (v) health and well-being is promoted.

It is also important that line managers have the right tools to carry out their jobs. For example, (i) a copy of personnel manual which is easily accessible, (ii) clear policies and guidance in areas such as absence, (iii) management and discipline, and (iii) training on policy up-dates of the organization.

There are several different types of coaching which can be given to the line managers. These different types of coaching  helps line managers (i) to change aspects of their behaviour, (ii) in personal development and improvement in the performance, and (iii) dealing with changes such as a merger or significant change of role. Coaching is a learning and development technique which uses one-to-one discussion. Coaching is about wanting to improve the way things are currently done and, through doing so, enabling people to achieve their full potential. Coaching helps the line managers to focus (i) on increasing knowledge, (ii) on enhancing skills, (iii) on improving performance, (iv) on individual, team or organizational goals, or (v) on dealing and interacting with the people. Coaching provides non-directive guidance for the line managers to work things out for themselves. It gives them the chance to receive lots of feedback on both strengths and weaknesses.

Coaching at work can also help line managers in several different ways such as (i) making a connection between personal and organizational goals, (ii)  taking responsibility for making decisions for solving of the issues, (iii) developing inter-personal skills, (iv) developing bonds between colleagues and nurturing working relationships, (v) management of specific situations. Line managers can receive coaching from a senior manager, an experienced line manager, an HR personnel trained in coaching, or from an external coach.

A recent study has shown that the employees’ performance and attitude is closely linked to (i) the way the employees see their line manager implementing and enacting HR policies and procedures, and (ii) the employees’ working relationship with their line manager. The way that policies and procedures are introduced and operated is frequently depends on the discretion of the individual line manager. The study has shown that this ‘discretionary behaviour’ has a strong influence on the behaviour and attitude of the employees. Discretionary behaviour is defined as that behaviour which goes beyond the requirements of the job to give the extra performance which can boost ‘the bottom line’ of the organization. Where employees feel positive about their relationship with their line managers, they are more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty, which are normally associated with higher levels of performance.

There are several methods by which line managers can encourage positive behaviour and increase employees’ motivation. These methods include (i) providing coaching and guidance to new employees  or for those struggling with their performance, (ii) being receptive to an employees’ issues or concerns, (iii) acknowledging and giving positive feedback on work well done, and (iv) showing flexibility and empathy. It is also important that line managers allow employees to thrive and develop by allowing them a level of discretion over how they do their job. Some level of freedom and responsibility for their own work has been proven to be an important aspect in motivating employees and encouraging their personal development. On the other hand being overly dominant and controlling can suppress employees’ creativity, initiative and enterprise.

Hence, line managers also need to be able to (i) develop good working relationships, (ii) communicate effectively, (iii) provide the necessary guidance which enables the employees to take on higher level of responsibility for their work, (iv) build strong teams, (v) deal quickly with any issues, and (vi) encourage employees to come forward with ideas and suggestions. The personal interaction between line managers and the employees they manage is particularly important in the several areas such as (i) performance management since it is normally linked to pay and incentives, (ii) work-life balance and flexible working, (iii) training, development, and coaching, (iv) communication and involvement, (v) openness and conflict management, and (vi) employee representation.

The employees feeling about the organization and their workplace strongly influenced by the way the line managers handle each of these areas. This has a significant impact on how well the employees do their job. For instance, line managers can set a good example of achieving a work-life balance (i) by ensuring they take regular rest breaks and annual leave, (ii) involve employees in policy development and implementation, (iii) coach the employees to increase skills and build trust, (iv) motivate the employees through positive feedback and appreciate performance, wherever possible, and (v) always investigate any problems or grievance thoroughly so they have a full understanding of what has occurred.

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