Line management

September 11th, 2007

When I became a manager, there were a bunch of things I knew I would have to get used to. Lots of time in Mingle, Excel and PowerPoint creating finger charts and project status reports, being responsible for the process of the team, spewing forth a welter of emails, learning to use the “follow up” flag on Notes, keeping a holiday calendar, kissing goodbye to Linux. However it turns out that I am also now a line manager – responsible for the well-being of the members of my team (thanks to my wife, Rani, for explaining to me what a line manager is). Since I believe that a happy team is a productive team, I thought I had better do some research on what makes a good line manager.

It turns out that the UK’s Health and Safety Executive publish a great document called “Line management behaviour and stress at work — guidance for line managers”. It starts off well: “there is a clear distinction between pressure, which can be a motivating factor, and stress, which can occur when this pressure becomes excessive.” But it gets even better, because it contains a table which summarises research derived from “interviews from 320 managers and employees, and discussions held with over 50 HR professionals.” This table represents “a competency framework … which provide[s] behavioural indicators of what constitute[s] ‘healthy’ management”. The table below is reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence.

Competency Examples of positive manager behaviour Examples of negative manager behaviour
Management standard: Demands
Managing workload and resources
  • bringing in additional resource to handle workload
  • aware of team members’ ability
  • monitoring team workload
  • refusing to take on additional work when team is under pressure
  • delegating work unequally to team
  • creating unrealistic deadlines
  • showing lack of awareness of how much pressure team are under
  • asking for tasks without checking workload first
Dealing with work problems
  • following through problems on behalf of employees
  • developing action plans
  • breaking problems down into parts
  • dealing rationally with problems
  • listening but not resolving problems
  • being indecisive about decisions
  • not taking problems seiously
  • assuming problems will sort themselves out
Process planning and organisation
  • reviewing processes to see if work can be improved
  • asking themselves ‘could this be done better?’
  • prioritising future workloads
  • working proactively
  • not using consistent processes
  • sticking too rigidly to rules and procedures
  • panicking about deadlines rather than planning
Management standard: Control
Empowerment
  • trusting employees to do their work
  • giving employees responsibility
  • steering employees in a direction rather than imposing direction
  • managing ‘under a microscope’
  • extending so much authority employees feel a lack of direction
  • imposing ‘my way is the only way’
Participative approach
  • provides opportunity to air views
  • provides regular team meetings
  • prepared to listen to employees
  • knows when to consult employees and when to make a decision
  • not listening when employee asks for help
  • presenting a final solution
  • making decisions without consultation
Development
  • encourages staff to go on training courses
  • provides mentoring and coaching
  • regularly reviews development
  • helps employees to develop in role
  • refuses requests for training
  • not providing upward mobility in job
  • not allowing employees to use their new training
Management standard: Support
Accessible / visible
  • communicating that employees can talk to them at any time
  • having an open-door policy
  • making time to talk to employees at their desks
  • being constantly at meetings / away from desk
  • saying ‘don’t bother me now’
  • not attending lunches or social events
Health and safety
  • making sure everyone is safe
  • structuring risk assessments
  • ensuring all health and safety requirements are met
  • not taking health and safety seriously
  • questioning the capability of an employee who has raised a safety issue
Feedback
  • praising good work
  • acknowledging employees’ efforts
  • operating a no-blame culture passing positive feedback about the team to senior management
  • not giving credit for hitting deadlines
  • seeing feedback as only ‘one way’
  • giving feedback that employees are wrong just because their way of working is different
Individual consideration
  • providing regular one-to-ones
  • flexible when employees need time off
  • provides information on additional sources of support
  • regularly asks ‘how are you?’
  • assuming everyone is okay
  • badgering employees to tell them what is wrong
  • not giving enough notice of shift changes
  • no consideration of work-life balance
Management standard: Relationships
Managing conflict
  • listening objectively to both sides of conflict
  • supporting and investigating incidents of abuse
  • dealing with conflicts head on
  • following up on conflicts after resolution
  • not addressing bullying
  • trying to keep the peace rather than sort out problems
  • taking sides
  • not taking employee complaints seriously
Expressing and managing own emotions
  • having a positive approach
  • acting calmly when under pressure
  • walking away when feeling unable to control emotion
  • apologising for poor behaviour
  • passing on stress to employees
  • acting aggressively
  • losing temper with employees
  • being unpredictable in mood
Acting with integrity
  • keeps employee issues private and confidential
  • admits mistakes
  • treats all employees with same importance
  • speaks about employees behind their backs
  • makes promises, then doesn’t deliver
  • makes personal issues public
Friendly style
  • willing to have a laugh and a joke
  • socialises with team
  • brings in food and drinks for team
  • regularly has informal chats with employees
  • criticises people in front of colleagues
  • pulls team up for talking / laughing during working hours
  • uses harsh tone of voice when asking for things
Management standard: Role and change
Communication
  • keeps team informed of what is happening in the organisation
  • communicates clear goals and objectives
  • explains exactly what is required
  • keeps people in the dark
  • holds meetings ‘behind closed doors’
  • doesn’t provide timely communication on organisational change
Management standard: Other
Taking responsibility
  • ‘leading from the front’
  • steps in to help out when needed
  • communicating ‘the buck stops with me’
  • deals with difficult customers on behalf of employees
  • saying ‘it’s not my problem’
  • blaming the team if things go wrong
  • walking away from problems
Knowledge of job
  • able to put themselves in employees’ shoes
  • has enough expertise to give good advice
  • knows what employees are doing
  • doesn’t have the necessary knowledge to do the job
  • doesn’t take time to learn about the employee’s job
Empathy
  • takes an interest in employees’ personal lives
  • aware of different personalities and styles of working within the team
  • notices when a team member is behaving out of character
  • insensitive to people’s personal issues
  • refuses to believe someone is becoming stressed
  • maintains a distance from employees – ‘us and them’
Seeking advice
  • seeks help from occupational health when necessary
  • seeks advice from other managers with more experience
  • uses HR when dealing with a problem
  • n/a

I learned a lot from reading through this table. Here are some of my conclusions.

  • You might think that following agile methodologies will solve your team problems. However it seems to me that they don’t cover line management in much detail at all.
  • The table above seems to me to be (un-)surprisingly compatible with agile. For example, the positive behaviours in the “empowerment” section are precisely what you’d need to support a self-organising team. The “Process planning and organisation” section lays out how important it is to constantly review and adapt the team’s process.
  • The table demonstrates to me that it is possible to model the skills and behaviours associated with being a line manager. It has obvious-in-retrospect but actually non-trivial bits of behaviour like “uses HR when dealing with a problem” and “knows when to consult employees and when to make a decision”.
  • There are more things that are my responsibility than I thought. For example, I’m responsible for the health and safety of my team.
  • I should be reviewing this list at least once a week to identify areas I’ve missed out on.
  • Transparency and communication with your team and management are key. The best thing I’ve done since I became a project manager is to do regular (bi-weekly) one-to-ones with my team members. I use a Manager Tools template for this (thanks to Marco Abis for the link), which gives 10 minutes of time for your team member to talk and give you feedback, ten minutes for you to talk and give feedback to your team member, and ten minutes to define actions to be followed up at the next meeting.
  • There’s more to project management than dealing with delivery issues such as managing risk, scope, time, cost and dependencies. People over process means taking line management seriously.
  • Alex

    I think the last sentence “People over process means ….” is the most critical lesson for management. What I have seen in so many companies is trying to place “process, technology, tool” over “people” for the reasons of efficiency, standardization, cost-saving, etc.. And they get what they deserve from people.

  • Clare

    Hey Jez. I couldn’t agree more on all of this. It’s a lot to stay on top of when you’re also trying to manage risks, scope, progress, reporting blah blah blah, but IMHO line management of people is one of the most important things I do on a project. This list is a great reminder, so thanks for posting. I implemented one-to-ones on my project after Marco’s talk at last Autumn’s TWUK away day (in fact, his session left me feeling inadequate for not doing it…), and the benefits in terms of relationship-building, the opportunity for expression and letting off steam, the feedback and ideas that have been generated are invaluable.

  • http://gp2v.blogspot.com Guruprasad Paduthonse

    Hello Jez,

    Thanks for writing such a nice article and providing a table. Iam thinking of gifting this table to my manager :->. Honestly, i felt whatever you have mentioned to be too idealistic. Or atleast i have not come across all of “positive manager behaviour” in one person.
    In my pesonal experience in all the projects that i could recollect, i see a major gap especially in the area of “Development” and “Empathy”. I think i can use the table as a tool to give feedback to managers. Atleast by this i can move towards making this earth a better place for software projects!!!..