HR and line managers: Speaking line managers’ language

Slowly but surely, line managers are taking over the HR front line. Gone are the days when the first port of call for any people management query was the HR department.

This is partly because HR as a function has transformed over the past decade. Administration is often outsourced, legislation has become more complex, European Union regulations have to be understood and adhered to, compensation is now multi-faceted, and selection and development have become more sophisticated. HR is both more specialist and more strategic than ever.

At the same time, the managers’ role has evolved as leadership skills have been recognised as being important for a high-performing workforce. ‘People management’ no longer means filling a form at the yearly appraisal and a few friendly chats in the staff canteen. Spotting talent, motivating, coaching, giving feedback, and developing staff, are all constant, day-to-day activities.

With HR departments focused on the knottier or bigger picture issues, and line managers actually managing the line, it’s vital these two functions understand each other – and that’s easier said than done.

The HR professional and the line manager too often seem to operate in very different worlds, and communication between the two can be lost in translation.

Sticking points

While the stereotypical ‘fluffy’ talk of HR is fading, it can still be difficult to discuss the nuances of people-related issues in specific terms. Sometimes vague language masks the details of confidential or sensitive conversations. However, there is no reason why the language HR professionals use has to remain rooted in theory.

The difficulty sometimes lies in timing. When HR communicates with managers it’s often heard as ‘noise’, because it comes on top of live business issues, and so can seem peripheral. This means that sometimes, all that managers actually hear is “blah blah blah development frameworks, blah blah blah performance systems blah blah blah recruitment processes”.

The key to cutting through this perception barrier is learning about the business and its cycles. The best HR professionals will have a good understanding of how their organisation makes its money, what affects its performance, and what the key times in the business year are. Understand what your line managers need to do to achieve success, and when their attention is more available, you’re half-way to reaching them.

Banner headlines such as ’empowering our staff’ or ‘enhancing our employee value proposition’ mean very little by themselves. They need to be talked about in the specific context of what the business is trying to achieve. Translating them into direct language – ‘which decisions should we devolve to customer-facing teams?’ and ‘how do we all engage in selling the best aspects of working here’? – are challenges everyone should embrace and discuss in a language everyone can understand.

Give evidence

Most business people react well to data. They feel uncomfortable taking business decisions without it (even if they ignore it). If line managers are to be convinced by HR, objective data to support decisions is key.

Psychology and psychometrics can help. Many HR professionals have psychology degrees and so may take the power of psychology for granted. True, a little knowledge may be dangerous, but part of its contribution to the line is to help measure and codify how people think and act, which can provide line managers with the most compelling evidence they need to become more people-focused.

Help them understand their staff and give them a framework for assessing, discussing and managing them, and you provide a basic toolkit for a more individually-centred approach to managing their people. Armed with more than subjective observations, they can now approach their tactical HR responsibilities more comfortably.

Engaging managers in wider HR issues is then a question of scaling up from the tactical. What are the trends they’re seeing in their people? How do they find the skills they need to get the job done? How do they keep teams focused on and motivated towards objectives? This way, reality begins to reflect HR’s aspirations and terms such as ‘talent management’ take on real urgency and relevance.

Key messages

So what are the key messages for line managers? First, help them to prioritise people. They often need to reassess what they value in their work. As well business outputs, they need to start valuing time spent on managing their people. This requires HR to lobby for embedding people management and development targets into the objectives of all line managers’ roles. Senior managers can then measure their reports against their success as leaders as well as revenue generators, recognising that one is instrumental to the other.

Second, make links between essential people skills and HR processes. For example, embedding performance management in an organisation requires that managers be proficient in providing feedback for improvement. Few people find this easy, so giving line managers a framework for these kinds of ‘courageous conversations’ can be instrumental in making the system work.

One of the biggest challenges is converting established line managers who have been neglecting their leadership responsibilities for years, whether through lack of training or conscious preference.

Raising the HR literacy of middle managers is critical, because they are the ‘concrete layer’ between the downward cascade of strategy and the reality of front-line behaviour. This ‘air-pocket’ of people is often one of the most important groups to bring on-board if HR is to add value and your organisation is to succeed. Targeting these managers and developing individual programmes for them is often the only way over the hurdle.

Mutual respect and the free exchange of ideas and actions between line managers and HR can propel individuals into becoming great leaders, and companies to great success. At the very least, it will go a long way to reforming the stereotypical image some line managers still hold of HR as being ‘all tea and sympathy’, and liberate the function to really make a difference at every level.

Our expert

Lucy McGee is head of marketing at business psychologist company OPP. She has been a speaker on talent and succession management and leadership development at major industry events, and has spoken about psychometric testing on a number of radio and TV programmes. For more information, visit

Top tips for communicating with line managers

  1. Understand how your company makes money and what affects success.

  2. Choose your moment to communicate with them.

  3. Gather data and use it as evidence to support your case.

  4. Focus your organisation on people priorities by including them in personal objectives.

  5. Give managers the tools they need to make processes work properly.

  6. Target the ‘resistors’ and offer individual coaching.

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