Poor line management: Is it a major problem?

The quality of line management in the UK is poor and negatively affecting staff engagement.

This is according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, who thinks staff health and wellbeing are suffering as a result of poor managerial practices.

He was speaking at the latest Why Mental Health Matters conference and is calling on HR directors to address this issue as soon as possible.

"Virtually all employee happiness areas have got worse since 2007 – things like staff feeling empowered, dealing with change, long hours and managing wellbeing – and these are all things line managers are in control of," Mr Cooper told HR Magazine.

Labelling many line managers in the UK as "unfit for purpose", he pointed out there is a surprising lack of interpersonal skills on show.

Mr Cooper, who was named as the 2014 HR Most Influential UK Thinker, has been studying managers for nearly a decade and has accumulated an extensive amount of data in this period. He has found that around 27 per cent said they struggled to make decisions, while 25 per cent rated their ability to listen as poor.

Widening skills gap

The skills gap has also been revealed as a major area of concern by the latest PwC Global CEO Survey. More than three-quarters (84 per cent) of UK leaders are worried about the availability of key skills, up from only 64 per cent 12 months ago.

This should act as a reality check for many businesses, as just because the economy is improving does not mean the right conditions exist for everyone to grow. Indeed, companies do not think they can bridge the talent gap alone, with two-thirds calling for the government to help create a skilled and adaptable workforce.

"A keen focus for UK CEOs is how the UK develops the right skills to compete globally," said Ian Powell, chairman and senior partner of PwC UK. "Our survey again highlights the pressing need for the government, business and education sectors to work together to enable the UK to prosper in the long-term."

People managers

Part of the reason for the disconnect between staff and managers is down to the hiring strategies of some organisations. Mr Cooper believes too many line managers are being chosen due to their previous functional achievements, rather than their people skills.

"Organisations need to select their line managers better," he stated. "Huge numbers are incompetent at soft skills. Either that, or train your line managers, because line managers are your problem."

The importance of soft skills has been a hot topic of conversation recently, with McDonald's and business entrepreneur James Caan joining forces to promote their relevance. According to research by the former, soft skills are worth up to £88 billion to the UK economy.

This has led the organisation to call for a whole-scale re-evaluation of their value, starting by asking policy experts, campaign groups and trade associations to offer opinions on how soft skills can be better taught.

An essential part of the HR function is maintaining a good relationship with line managers, especially as the individualisation of the employment relationship has become more prominent.

If companies want to boost staff wellbeing, this area cannot be overlooked.