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Challenge of upskilling line managers "faces every type of firm"

27 January 2015


UK organisations are struggling to train managers that have the closest contact with staffers, according to IPA research – and workers’ mental health is at risk

Matt Packer

Senior leaders throughout the UK have expressed mounting concerns about how they will develop the skills and talents of their line managers. According to a study published this week by business consultancy the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), 70% of HR officers, directors and chief executives have put “upskilling line managers” in their Top Three of major challenges currently facing their firms.

“Implementing organisational change” came a close second – with 65% naming it in their Top Three – while “strengthening the leadership team” trailed a distant third at 30%. Significantly, IPA’s data showed that there was scant difference between the priorities and challenges of the private and public sectors. The only notable change was that “improving working relationships” came out with a slightly higher score of 35% in the private sector, narrowly beating the “leadership team” issue that came in third place overall.

The findings have presented bosses across the country with serious matters to consider in the realm of workplace wellbeing. Indeed, IPA’s figures have arrived hot on the heels of comments from business psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, who told the recent Why Mental Health Matters conference in London that most employee-engagement schemes have failed – and that key areas of workplace happiness have deteriorated as a result. As quoted in HR magazine, that malaise has led Cooper to conclude: “Our line managers today are unfit for purpose. It’s rather sad in a way, but they simply don’t have the interpersonal skills [they need].”

Other experts have highlighted the crucial role that skills play in shaping company culture – a clear set of values that line managers are often tasked with conveying to their staff. In a column this week for the Huffington Post, Chartered Management Institute (CMI) chief executive Ann Francke argued that the UK needs a “Culture Club”: a collective agreement among senior leaders that they will regularly measure, and report on, their human capital. In Francke’s view, that process is vital for ensuring that people development drives and shapes company culture for the benefit of all. “By championing greater development of skills and greater transparency in people reporting,” Francke stressed, “we could foster much-needed long-termism.”

However, despite the shortcomings that those experts have identified, IPA director Nita Clarke provided a positive angle on the findings, saying: “it is encouraging that organisations are recognising the importance of enhancing the skills of both their line and senior managers. Engaging for Success, my review of employee engagement with David MacLeod, clearly showed that engaging managers are one of the four key enablers of employee engagement – alongside a strong and empowering leadership team. For organisations undergoing change – which let’s face it, in current times is all organisations – investment in both is likely to pay dividends in delivering transformation.”

CMI director of strategy and external affairs Petra Wilton, said: “These results echo our own annual Future Forecast report – which found that people development is one of the Top Three priorities for employers in 2015 as they look to grow. Any organisation that is serious about hitting the objectives ahead of it should be looking at how it can develop its line managers. Whether through management courses, management qualifications or the Chartered Manager award, employers have huge flexibility to tailor development to meet their needs. Without a renewed focus on developing managers, employee engagement, productivity and bottom-line results will suffer.”

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