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Employee engagement factors: the line manager comes first

Published 24th May 2017 by Investors in People
Young line manager with team

When it comes to employee engagement, failing to focus on the role of the line manager can be disastrous.

Firstly, because the line manager acts as a bridge between what the organisation wants and what the individual wants. The only way organisations can successfully implement engagement strategies on a local level is through the relationship between the line manager and the employee.

Secondly, because the effectiveness of the line manager is correlated so strongly with concepts that are fundamental to employee engagement, such as work satisfaction and a healthy psychological contract, failing to focus on the effectiveness of the line manager can undermine all other employee engagement efforts.

Five reasons line managers are a crucial factor in successful employee engagement

They translate organisational policy into practice

According to a paper out of UWE [PDF], the line manager’s role in translating policy into practice means they play a “critical role in influencing employee attitudes and behaviours.”

Compassionate leave policies are a good example here. When an employee has suffered a bereavement, the organisation will have a formal compassionate leave policy but this offers a one-size-fits-all solution that may not be suitable for that individual employee.

It’s the line manager’s job to implement the policy (flexing and shaping it where necessary) to give the employee a more human experience of the organisation’s will, positively shaping the employee’s attitude and behaviours towards the organisation.

This means line managers, according to the authors of the UWE paper, “can be vital in making the difference between low-performing and high-performing organisations.”

They nurture and sustain employee involvement

Organisational processes are naturally formal, which promotes compliance and clarity of communication, and allows senior leaders to compare and contrast outcomes across different functions.

However, this formality makes it difficult for employees to connect emotionally and so policies designed to genuinely promote employee involvement can end up landing stiffly.

The line manager is crucial here: an analysis of the Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) by Cox et al (2007) found a strong relationship between line managers’ approaches to employee involvement and staff commitment and satisfaction.

The authors said that the “informal way in which line managers deliver formal involvement processes is key to improved employee attitudes.”

They act on behalf of different stakeholders and translate between them

López-Cotarelo from Warwick Business School points out that historically line managers have been seen as acting “primarily on behalf of the organisation.” [PDF]

And yet López-Cotarelo’s own research suggests line managers pursue a combination of organisational, departmental and individuals goals, so for example they may have a strong personal imperative to build good links with their employees, as well as raise the profile of their department internally and cascade down organisational initiatives.

In this way they are connectors, translating the individual needs of different stakeholders into something understandable to the others. This means that ineffectiveness at the line manager level can easily lead to breakdowns in communication, performance and engagement.

Say the organisation requires employees to stay late for a week in order to get a project finished. How can the line manager translate this so that employees are willing to put in the extra time without seeing it as an unfair demand?

They help bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality

Truss (2001) found “a strong disconnect between the ‘rhetoric’ of HRM and the ‘reality’ experienced by employees” and noted the importance of the line manager as an agent in helping to bridge this gap, by “focusing his or her attention in varying ways.”

This suggests that organisations implementing their own employee engagement initiatives may be limited in their ability to overcome the rhetoric-reality divide without assistance from effective line managers at the local level.

Line managers can help bridge the rhetoric-reality divide, for example by creating an environment where employees can give genuine feedback on how they feel about a particular policy, which helps the organisation understand the reality of how an initiative has landed. This could then lead to changes to future initiatives or comms strategies.

Their effectiveness correlates strongly with employee commitment and satisfaction

Research suggests that the quality of supervisory leadership is the strongest factor associated with organisational commitment: this is important because levels of organisational commitment are a strong driver of discretionary effort and organisational citizenship behaviours, which are both associated with high employee engagement.

The same research found the quality of supervisory leadership to be one of the most important factors in influencing healthy psychological contracts, work satisfaction and loyalty to customers.