Improving line management

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
09 May 2019
Key findings

Having a good manager is crucial to how we get on at work.

The TUC polled over 2,000 working people on their experiences with their line manager. This report examines the results and makes recommendations on how employers and the government can improve the relationship between line managers and workers.

It found that:

  • One in three workers (32%) feel uncomfortable approaching their managers about problems at work
  • More than a third (35%) don’t think that their line manager treats them and their colleagues fairly
  • Nearly half of respondents (44%) say their line-manager didn’t ensure they knew their rights at work.

The report recommends employers provide better training and support for line managers. It also calls on the government to improve the enforcement of workers’ rights and to do more to increase awareness of workers’ rights.

The work of a line manager is vital. A good line manager improves the working lives of those they manage, as well as enhancing the performance of the organisation they work for. A poor line manager, unfortunately, can have the opposite effect.

In this report, we set out why line managers are so important. We then look at workers’ views on line management and discuss why line management isn’t as good as it might be. We end by setting out some ideas and recommendations for how we can improve line management in the UK.

We argue that to be good in their roles, and to ensure that they’re doing right by those they manage, line managers need training, support and time. Unfortunately, they don’t always currently seem to be getting those.

We therefore need to create incentives for employers to improve line management. We want to see better enforcement of rights, unions allowed access to workplaces, and a legal requirement for employers to display workers’ rights in the workplace.

Summary

Line management is a big issue for the TUC and the workers we represent. It’s important because it influences pretty much everything. Whenever we talk to working people, regardless of the topic, they usually mention their line manager. When we spoke to mums and dads about what support they got at work, for example, we heard about how line managers could make all the difference 1. The same was true when we surveyed workers about their experience of insecure work, harassment at work, and workplace monitoring.  

The importance of line management

This reflects the reality of most people’s working lives. Our line managers, the bosses that we likely have most face-to-face interaction with, have a big impact on our experience of work. We all remember a great line manager who allowed us to be our best. Unfortunately, plenty of us also probably remember a not-so-good line manager who made work miserable, whether intentionally or not.

Line management is therefore important whenever we talk about good work. There’s recently been a lot of discussion about what makes a job good, including the Government releasing its Good Work Plan 2in response to the Taylor Review, and the Labour Party publishing its twenty-point plan for a fair deal at work 3. Line management should be an intrinsic part of any of these discussions. As we show throughout this report, so much of your experience of work depends on your line manager.

Workers’ perspective

To gauge the current state of line management, we wanted to hear more about line managers from the people who are actually managed by them. We therefore asked workers for their perspective 4. What we found is a mixed bag. While the majority of workers seem happy with their line manager, there’s a worryingly significant minority who clearly aren’t.

Within the results of the survey, it’s easy to spot the general strengths and weaknesses of line managers. Strengths seem to lie in trusting workers to get on with their jobs, and setting out clear expectations. It’s the trickier, more proactive skills where they begin to struggle. These include:

  • Helping to boost morale at work. Almost one-in-five workers told us that the phrase “my line manager helps morale at work” in no way reflects their personal experience. A further 27 per cent said it only reflected their workplace a little.
  • Ensuring workers know their rights. We asked working people how well the phrase “my line manager makes sure I know my rights at work” describes their workplace. 18 per cent told us that this does not at all reflect their experience of line management. 26 per cent said it reflected it only a little.
  • Actively making sure that workers feel supported. Almost a third of workers don’t think their line manager would support them if they had a problem at work. Only around a fifth of workers think “my line manager wants what’s best for me” is a very accurate summary of their workplace experience

When we look at the wider research on line management, there’s a reason why these more difficult-to-obtain skills might be lacking in some line managers. It’s because these are the skills that require training, time and a knowledge of workers’ rights. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of employers aren’t investing the money or time to improve the capabilities and confidence of their line managers.

When we look at the type of training provided by employers in the past 12 months, only 35 per cent of those that provided some training had provided management training. As well as this, ‘managers’ are the occupational group least likely to be receiving training, and the only occupational group where less than half received training in the past year (49 per cent).

How we can change this

So how do we get them to start doing this? We believe we need to create incentives. There’s currently little incentive for employers to disseminate knowledge of workers’ rights, and ensure workers are accessing those rights, because government enforcement is weak. Better enforcement would increase the costs and risks for companies, and therefore encourage them to properly train their line managers.

We also need to provide workers with an alternative if their line managers aren’t providing the support they need. Union representatives in the workplace offer this alternative. They inform workers of their rights, help to ensure these rights are enforced, and give the workers a collective voice that gives them a stronger position when negotiating with their employer. They can also support any workers who have issues with their line manager.

This report is split into four sections:

  • The first looks at why line management matters, bringing together literature on research on the importance of good line management
  • In the second section, we look at workers’ views on line management
  • We then look at why line management isn’t as good as it could be in the UK, looking in particular at the UK’s management culture and training for line managers
  • We end by setting out some policy recommendations for how we can improve line management