Why line managers often can’t manage

The devolution of HRM practices to line managers is an ongoing topic in human resource management; meaning, in brief, that many HRM practices now fall under the remit of line managers. Take, for instance, recruitment and selection: while a HR representative from the HR department may attend interviews for new recruits to the organisation, it is the line manager – the person whose team will be joined by the new recruit - that suffers the consequences of the hiring decision, and so also ultimately (in consultation with the rest of the interview panel) owns the selection decision.

However, the issue with line managers now undertaking more and more HR-related tasks (including conducting performance appraisals, advising training and development needs of individual subordinates), is that most of these line managers have never been trained in HRM or in any people-management discipline. Often individuals are promoted to line managers due to an excellent performance record. But being an excellent individual contributor does not equal being an excellent people manager. Often these newly promoted line managers receive no support or training in their new role.

A recent report has found that the lack of support for managers results in problems with leadership and has a negative impact on the organisational culture. The CIPD study (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) found that more than one third of line managers had no training for their people-management role. Moreover, it found that the ability to undertake effective line management is jeopardised due to time management issues, where line managers are spending more time on immediate task oriented priorities (for the organisation) rather than on longer term strategic initiatives to build a culture of trust, support, loyalty and development with their subordinates.

In keeping with Ulrich and Brockbank’s (2005) HRM roles, line managers are trying to perform their role as strategic partners AND employee advocates, which in practice is proving incompatible. The study underlines the problem here in terms of leadership development, where the rhetoric and reality are inconsistent. This results in negative repercussions within teams and at management levels (where short-term objectives are prioritised above long term sustainable endeavours). Other implications include work stress for line managers, stuck between their roles and loyalties to subordinates and more senior managers, when the focus should be on what is best for the organisation.

What are your experiences as/with line managers and trying to be strategic partners undertaking and implementing organisational priorities, AND being employee advocates, focusing on nurturing and developing the needs of your subordinates? Have you received training and support in your role as people manager? Your comments are welcomed in order to inform the discussion further.

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About Marian Crowley-Henry

Dr Marian Crowley-Henry is a lecturer in human resource management, international management and organisational behaviour/theory in the Department of Management at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. She is the programme director of the MSc HRM/HRD. Marian’s current research interests are in international human resource management, self initiated expatriation, migration, careers and identity, and supervises PhD research students in those areas.