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Help develop line managers’ inner confidence now, urges new research paper

A new approach to nurturing great line managers is required to equip them with the competencies needed for today’s work environment.

While events of the past few years might not have affected the fundamental skills that effective line managers require, they have changed the context within which those managers operate.

A more politicised and sensitised work environment has made it difficult for them to exercise legitimate authority, for example. Meanwhile, home and hybrid working has made people management far harder and has affected the opportunities that managers have for informal, on-the-job learning.

These were just some of the headline findings of a recent Roffey Park Institute research paper, presented at a joint Roffey Park and KPMG virtual event earlier this week.

Explaining how the demands of frontline management have changed in recent times, Dr Jan Moorhouse, Roffey Park’s Head of Research, Thought Leadership and Academic Delivery said: “Hybrid working and the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda have had a significant impact on the day-to-day activities of frontline managers. So too has the shifting societal context of the 2020s, with a greater focus now placed on identity, self and mental health. Knowing how to cope with these considerations, especially for people who are new to line management, can be a real challenge.”

“Operating in an environment where there’s no longer any sense of what’s normal, line managers need to be supported to develop the skills required by their altered circumstances. If they’re to continue leading diverse, multi-generational teams with authority and wisdom, they’re going to need greater strategic awareness and self-awareness and an increased capacity for critical thinking and reflection.”

Standing the test of time

Roffey Park’s research revealed how certain management skills have stood the test of time, remaining as valid now as they ever were. These include time management, effective delegation, motivating others and communicating assertively. However, these are now more difficult to apply, thanks to the workplace disruption of recent years brought about by macro-level changes across culture, social groups, economics, politics and technology.

A separate KPMG research report reinforced the point about this shift in context, citing how two-thirds of organisations claimed to be in the process of refreshing their employee value proposition. Typically, they were doing this to reflect organisational changes connected to flexible working, fair pay and their culture, values and purpose.

Dr Moorhouse continued: “The impact of all this disruption can be quite overwhelming for today’s line managers, leaving them worried about their management efficacy. Without the confidence to put their management ideas into practice, they can quickly find themselves suffering from imposter syndrome. That’s why we need to rethink the training agenda for frontline managers, creating something that combines the basic skills with higher level competencies such as being reflective and self-critical. All of this should help deliver the inner confidence that managers need right now.”

“When I presented these findings, there was an interesting debate about whether confidence or assertiveness were really the most suitable expressions for what managers need to develop. There was a sense of them perhaps being too aggressive, too focused on projecting a certain external image or leading managers down an old-fashioned command-and-control route. Compassionate management or candour were put forward as alternative priorities. Those are really great expressions; reminding us that the levers of management are different today. Managers still need to get people to do what they need to do – but greater compassion, honesty and empathy may now be the levers to pull. Think of it as enlightened managerial self-interest.”

Trying something different

Reinforcing the theme of having to tackle managers’ development in a different way, Mike Zealley, Partner and Managing Director of KPMG’s learning business, said: “For me, it’s all about adaptive management now. There’s no longer a rulebook to follow or a pre-defined set of skills that you must have. It’s about being able to adapt to what’s around you; being confident enough to improvise in your management practice.”

“That’s why I think contemporary management development has to be based around coaching, rather than teaching. Help the individual to make sense of this for themselves. Don’t just tell them how to act. That’s where this inner confidence will come from; by letting them paint their own picture. That should help them feel more at ease with the ambiguity – and potential discomfort – of today’s work environment.”

“Admittedly, coaching is something that’s often thought of as being reserved for senior managers – and potentially too expensive to be done at the scale required for all line managers. However, online learning and peer-to-peer group coaching can help in this regard, with the added bonus of being able to use technology to provide a better experience for under-represented groups who can often struggle to make their voice heard in a learning environment.”

The challenge facing more experienced senior managers and leaders was also touched upon during the event, particularly with regard to role modelling an organisation’s purpose and values. In a hybrid working world, employees may only see fragments of a leader’s range of actions and behaviours. Raising the risk of things being taken out of context or misinterpreted, this puts pressure on leaders to reflect on how they’re perceived and the shadow they cast on their teams or organisation.

Additionally, with so many working in organisational systems nowadays, rather than siloed structures, leaders are being obliged to rethink some of their management tools and techniques. The traditional approach of cascading communication through a hierarchically organised structure, for example, may need to be replaced by an alternative approach where messages are more patiently rippled through the various parts of a broader system.

With the scale of organisations’ management challenges laid bare, Mike Zealley concluded: “Whatever organisations decide to do, either with their newer frontline managers or their more experienced counterparts, now is the time to experiment with different approaches to management development. There was a great line in our event’s panel discussion about 2023 being ‘the year of the test’. That’s absolutely right. Try out different ideas – but give your managers the support they really need at this challenging time.”

To read Roffey Park’s full research report, click here.

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