Becoming strategic depends on more than ambition

The secret of comedy is timing, they say. Within 60 seconds of each other, I received two emails that seemed to be trying to prove the point:

  • An email from a colleague about a Roffley Institute report showing that board level managers think they are rather more respected that those below them would confirm
  • A email from, giving the definition of the word ‘mammonism’ (full definition online here).

Among the citations and references for the latter, I spotted an academic study of Dickens. Poking verbal sticks into ‘fat cats’ has a long and venerable history, of course, but it’s subject like so many things to the vagaries of fashion. Dickens’ bicentenary this year will no doubt bring a fresh tidal wave of retrospection to cultural shores already awash with Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey and the like. (Fitfully switching between viewing and dozing in an armchair on Christmas Day last year, the only thing that didn’t feature Regency bonnets a-go-go seemed to be the evening news.) The list of associated words in the definition almost set my pun-loving mind into action (“I thought mammonite was a kind of fossil until I discovered …”) before the thought that nostalgic wallowing can be damaging as well as amusing. The past is another country, but tourism is a better option than emigration.

But poking a stick at something isn’t the only way of working on its behaviour. A metaphorical stethoscope can be equally useful, and perhaps more positive. Surveys might always be more wisely taken with a modicum of salt, but an organisation with Roffley Institute’s standing has earned interest and respect. The interesting element, picked up by HR Magazine, concerns line managers perceptions of HR. Over the last year, the level of their agreement with the statement “HR produces relevant and timely initiatives” has reversed recent trends and fallen sharply, from 59% to 50%. HR Magazine quotes Dilip Boury, the report’s author, with a paragraph that should pique the interest of all of those arguing that the future role of HR lies in forcefully staking its claim as a strategic powerhouse within organisations:

This is, of course, based on the perceptions of line managers. They believe where HR adds value is in the transactional – but this is not where HR departments achieve the best outcomes for the business. When HR directors become strategic, line managers will need the appropriate training to understand why and I don’t think employers have been having these sorts of conversations with them. It is a change management issue.”

Essentially, if HR’s role moves away from ‘the transactional’, those responsibilities must find a new organisational locus. As the ‘traditional’ line manager-HR relationship is based, at least from the line manager’s point of view, on the idea that HR is there to perform those transactional duties, this is a change management issue: a change of responsibilities for two groups of people, and a change of their working relationship.

This shifting relationship plays out in a complex context, not least as people don’t always attribute praise or scorn directly: there’s more than a suggestion of ‘can-carrying’ at work in many organisations, as the report itself (download a PDF copy here) explains:

We found that the quality of change management made the biggest difference to perceptions of leadership; followed by performance management, line management and finally talent management. When all of these factors were taken into consideration, the effectiveness of HR did not affect views of leaders. This suggests that where change, performance and talent management are effective, leaders are rated considerably higher. Our interpretation of these findings is that the blame for poor management is likely to be attributed to leaders even though this is being executed by those lower down the hierarchy.”

Another factor – the impact of issues that are the most urgent or pressing – is also at play. Given economic circumstances, we are living in a time where redundancies are a fact of life not just for most organisations but also for line managers. As David Pardy, head of research and policy at Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), comments in the HR Magazine article:

We have found a problem – 60% of line managers don’t want to be managers. They struggle with people issues and, although it is central to their role, they find it the hardest.”

It shouldn’t therefore surprise anyone that those outside HR perceive it as adding most value in terms of the support it provides in helping to handle redundancies. The value they provide presumably consists mostly of ‘taking the pain away’ – a role that’s always appreciated, even if excellence in pain management is arguably something that should be at least partially devolved to the patient, rather than creating a dependency on the physician. Perception of the value that HR adds is lower in the strategic areas – retaining staff, OD, career development – that are also the areas that, in HR spheres, have heard many voices being raised as areas for the function to champion.

It’s probably only human to champion your own significance, value and importance. (Being honest at a broad level for a moment, we can hardly claim to live in an era of modesty. Trumpet-blowing is becoming something of a national cultural pastime.) The problem is perception. Just as the Roffley Institute report found that 79% of board directors believe they are well respected while only 50% of other managers agree, the gap in the perception of the positivity of the contribution of HR between HR Managers and other Managers has rising from 20% to 28% since 2010.

This isn’t to argue that HR is wrong – or even merely vain or self-seeking – to believe that it has a mission-critical strategic role to play. But the gap in perception and the difference in opinion as to where its value lies is something that the function must tackle if it is to achieve its ambition without painful consequences not just for line managers but for the organisation. Growing gaps that are not addressed can become not just differences but engrained divisions: if organisations are serious – as they should be – about constructively managing not just human resources but their performance, and about talent management, retention and deployment, a divided house is in no-one’s interest.

Given the ILM’s (rather alarming) figure on the percentage of managers who don’t want to be, it’s not just HR that needs to adjust its role and other people’s perception of it, it’s also managers – and working together on this is more likely to be productive than to work in opposition. And Senior managers have a role to play here too. To return to the Roffley Institute report:

15 per cent of managers reported their line managers were less than adequate in demonstrating empathy and fairness and approximately one in five reported their line managers were less than adequate on the other measures (24% on reward and recognition, 23% on developing people and performance, 20% on consulting and informing and 18% on supporting and empowering). It might be expected that more senior line managers, who are likely to have more experience and training, would be rated more highly. This was not, however, the case. Line manager ratings were nevertheless, moderately correlated with organisation support for employee development. They were also moderately correlated with leadership ratings such that the better the leadership the better the line managers. Whilst we cannot imply direct causality from this data, our findings cohere with theories that strong leadership and role models, as well as support for employee development, promote better line manager behaviours and […] consequently impact on employee engagement.”

Long, fruitful marriages – even metaphorical ones – aren’t a guaranteed outcome of engagement, but putting the horse before the cart is at least an intelligent first step.

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Filed under: authentic leadership, communication, HR, line managers, management, organisational development, relationships
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