Line manager roles are key to a great workplace

Managers who listen inspire more engagement.

Line managers have to be everything from counsellors to colleagues, but their role in increasing engagement and productivity is crucial, argues Helen Wright.

The pivotal responsibility line managers have in helping the business deliver its overall goals and objectives is increasingly underestimated.

Not only do they have operational targets to meet, but they also need to meet the individual needs of the people that they manage.

“Management” covers a wide range of skills and behaviours, from defining roles and objectives to ensuring that training and development needs are met, all while creating the kind of environment where people will enjoy working, are motivated to do their best and which retains talent.

What staff say about managers

‘Honesty and the ability to do the job. Two things which my managers do not have.’


‘My place of employment understands the logic of looking after their employees who, in turn, look after their clients, creating a cycle of efficiency and above-and-beyond satisfaction.’


‘Managers still do not trust staff to act professionally. There is too much monitoring necessitating us to jump through numerous hoops on a daily basis.’


‘There is generally poor communication between management and staff which causes confusion and compromises trust.’


‘You walk in as a new member of staff and feel welcome and part of something special. This feeling never really goes away. Management are approachable – everyone spends valuable time training and explaining all aspects of the roles.’


‘Managers usually only offer promotions to people who threaten to leave, which leaves more deserving members of staff left behind.’


Source: Great Place to Work survey, 2014

It is a job description that can require the super-human skills of a psychologist, social worker, counsellor, parent and colleague so it is no surprise that many managers struggle with the “people” aspect of their roles.

Research from Great Place to Work shows that 62% of employees think their managers do not show sufficient interest in them as people; two-thirds do not think they get enough appreciation for what they do and 70% do not plan to stay with their employer for a long time.

Although people tend to change jobs more frequently than they used to, looking at the low levels of engagement in some organisations, poor relationships with managers is a significant factor.

What is missing?

So what are managers doing – or not doing – that could be driving so many employees to polish up their CVs? And what do managers need to do to build a happy and productive workforce, capable of delivering the business’ goals?

The answer to both questions is trust. This is key to building positive relationships between a manager and an employee and creating the kind of culture where employees feel motivated and empowered to deliver. Trust then drives engagement, which studies such as the 2012 Engage for Success report, Nailing the Evidence, in turn drives performance.

More than 6,000 employers around the world use our survey, and those with particularly high levels of trust can be ranked as a Best Workplace.

According to the 2014 UK data (from a study representing the views of more than 170,000 employees) there is a gap of 45 percentage points between the levels of trust in the top 10 ranked organisations and the bottom 10 unranked organisations.

Trustworthy organisations

But what exactly do we mean by trust? It should need no definition, but we find that it is not so much what managers do, but how; and it is not about doing different things, but doing things differently.

Our study highlights a number of key behaviours that help build trust and can even damage or destroy it if missing or poorly performed.

Looking at our top 10 ranked and bottom 10 unranked organisations, there are large gaps in how employees rate managers’ performance of the following key trustworthy behaviours:

  • providing appropriate resources so that employees can do their jobs properly;
  • allowing people to get on with their jobs without constantly looking over their shoulders;
  • involving employees in decisions that affect them and giving them a voice in the business;
  • being honest and ethical in what they do;
  • treating everyone fairly with no favouritism;
  • treating people as individuals;
  • keeping promises or commitments;
  • actions matching their words;
  • recognising achievements; and
  • supporting employees, particularly at difficult times in their lives.

Of these 10 behaviours, two show the biggest gap in performance between best in class organisations and those aspiring to become great: managers keeping their promises, and managers’ actions matching their words.

For both these behaviours, the data shows a massive gap of 61 percentage points between the top 10 high-trust and the bottom 10 low-trust organisations.

Managers’ actions matching their words is a particularly important behaviour when it comes to role-modelling values.

Very often the values that are espoused by management are not the ones employees see going on around them.

It is those actual values that shape the organisation’s culture (and that are directly linked to financial performance), not the formal ones posted on websites or screensavers, so by the way they behave, managers can often unwittingly create the very culture that the organisation wants to avoid.

Impact on staff

Reading what employees say about their line managers and how they affect their lives, both work and personal, can be sobering (see quotes in box, above right).

Survey statements Top 10: high-trust employers Bottom 10: low-trust employers
‘People look forward to coming to work here’ 96% 32%
‘This is a great place to work’ 98% 43%
‘I would recommend working here to others’ 98% 44%
‘I can fulfil my career aspirations working here’ 87% 34%
‘I want to work here a long time’ 93% 52%
Overall levels of engagement 95% 53%

They cite examples of favouritism, unfair promotions, poor communication, lack of recognition for what they do and lack of opportunity for them to contribute their suggestions and ideas.

But there are also positive and heart-warming comments from employees who see their managers as supportive, appreciative, approachable, honest and fair. These employees enjoy their jobs and their working environment and see their organisation as a place to stay and develop their careers.

Furthermore, the Great Place to Work 2014 study shows a gap of 42 percentage points in the levels of engagement between the top 10 high-trust organisations and bottom 10 low-trust organisations (see table above).

It is often said that a person joins an organisation, but leaves a manager. For employees in low-trust organisations, their next step may well be a parting of the ways.

Helen Wright

About Helen Wright

Helen Wright is head of marketing and communications at Great Place to Work Institute.
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