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Managers and workplace culture: a precarious symbiosis

When we talk about workplace culture, a lot of responsibility is laid with managers - but they are people too. How is organisational culture affecting them? And how, in turn, does this impact their team?

29th Aug 2019
business people in a meeting
iStock/Tom Merton

It’s a universally understood concept that managers play a crucial role in workplace culture. As key people to implement policy, ensure team effectiveness and productivity, and promote a mentally healthier working environment, we ask a lot from our organisations’ managers.

Asking them to be a leader, change facilitator, disciplinarian, visionary, motivator, HR process implementer, counsellor and technical expert – all on top of their full workload – is a tall order.

We forget to see them as a member of the ‘employee’ cohort when we talk about the workforce, and instead associate them as an external contributor.

We see the relationship as ‘line managers do onto employees’, but do we spend as much time and compassion on the employee-to-line manager relationship when we explore our workplace culture?

The impact of company structures

Factors that influence culture - like policy, senior leadership and industry - have an impact on how managers manage and make decisions.

An organisation that focuses too heavily on rigid structures and processes disempowers managers and shifts accountability and ownership away from them and their business area.

An over-reliance on strict, step-by-step approaches to managing people takes away any chances of flexibility, pragmatism, and sometimes common sense, and instead creates a culture of reactive – not proactive – management.

British workers are more comfortable talking about sex, relationship break-ups and money than inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and poor performance.

Reactive management is one of many signs of a toxic workplace culture.

Line managers aren’t concerned about people as part of their business-as-usual responsibilities until they become a problem and they need to react to an immediate issue.

It is only at this point where emotions and tensions are high that managers call into question their own abilities and become overwhelmed.

They hesitate to act on initiative or take risks due to the sensitive issue that isn’t covered by the rigid processes, and struggle to have the difficult conversations needed.

With less emphasis on the need for manager training and reluctance to make decisions that don’t fit with the status quo, the situation unnecessarily escalates.

Your communications culture

This reflects a CMI survey that showed British workers are more comfortable talking about sex, relationship break-ups and money than inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and poor performance.

The issue isn’t just when employees become a problem. Problem employees cause a great deal of anxiety and stress for line managers, and have been given the role to be solely responsible and accountable for the effective management of the situation.

I have seen this negatively affect even the most competent managers, but when the UK fails to invest in line managers as much as other countries do, there are more managers at risk of excessive stress, anxiety and consequent absence.

When this is coupled with a culture where employees and/or unions are seen to be calling the shots, managers are even more hesitant to act.

They become almost scared of employees and how they might react to basic and legitimate management and HR processes.

This culture perpetuates the harmful perception of ‘us and them’ and pushes the untrained manager even further into a corner.

So what can we do to manage the impact organisational culture has on line managers, and vice versa?

Employee co-operation

Formal HR processes aren’t supposed to be enjoyable but because of this, they should be easy.

This isn’t to confuse the assumption that all employee relations are easy, but the process that their managers support them through must be.

For this to happen, employees need to participate professionally with the process, something that should be taken into consideration when developing policies or designing improvement initiatives.

We need to be mindful that the most competent line manager may have their own personal issues to deal with that are only accentuated during times of stress.

We’re not asking employees to be subservient or passive, but they need to be aware of the consequences of participating professionally (e.g. a quicker resolution, chance for improved relationships, individual development and improvement, healthier approach to mental wellbeing and psychological resilience).

They also need to know what happens when they do not participate professionally (e.g. delayed resolution, irreversible breakdown of relationships, prolonging the emotional ordeal for them and the manager, less chances of moving on).

Ultimately, this reduces the risk of upset and excessive stress on both parties, and managers feel more assured the organisation has considered the impact change initiatives, processes and policies have on the manager as well as the employee.

EAP dedication to line managers

Employee assistance programmes (EAP) are mostly promoted for the benefit of employees for a range of work-related and personal issues.

While line managers, as employees, have access to these, offering a dedicated line manager ‘hotline’ means they are put through to someone who can advise in a management context.

There may be a number of reasons why a manager might not feel comfortable to speak to their manager or HR about a management issue (culture being one of them), but the organisation that is holding them accountable for so many things should at least offer them this outlet.

We need to be mindful that the most competent line manager may have their own personal issues to deal with that are only accentuated during times of stress.

Having access to a dedicated hotline means they can, for example, discuss how they feel about managing someone who is verbally abusive after growing up in a similar family environment.

Training

As obvious as this suggestion is, I feel it necessary to include ‘training’ as a potential solution.

We can’t keep promoting people into management positions without the necessary people management skills. It isn’t fair on the team and it isn’t fair on the managers.

Cultivate a healthy management culture by getting them on the right foot at the very beginning and equipping themselves with the required techniques and skills, e.g. resilience and role-playing difficult conversations.

If we are to assess our existing workplace culture to address areas of concerns, we might start at our line managers and how effectively they manage people and their teams – they play such a pivotal role after all.

Whether this is a mandatory suite of learning or a requirement before they are internally promoted, make a goal for yourself of 100% trained managers. How is any less acceptable?

Being resilient and emotionally intelligent means to better manage emotions and emotive situations.

Emotionally unintelligent managers should not be in the position to promote emotional intelligence in their teams so make sure they are firstly prepared with the right mindset and psychological tools.

Assess your existing culture

If we are to assess our existing workplace culture to address areas of concerns, we might start at our line managers and how effectively they manage people and their teams – they play such a pivotal role after all.

If, however, we were to take a step back and begin with managers’ influencers, e.g. how workplace culture impacts them, then we strengthen our future efforts.

Regardless of what your organisational mission statements say or what you put on your website, take a long hard look at the organisation’s culture objectively and have a genuine desire to transform it.

Analyse the views of your managers and those they manage, and include them in the detox process.

Make sure to acknowledge the ugly nooks and crannies they bring up, the ones you always try to put to one side and begin to proactively address them.

Management culture and the management of culture are tricky issues to tackle but it’s important to see this as a vicious cycle and precarious symbiosis.

Consider your line managers beyond how they affect employees and the workplace culture – you also need to look at how they are affected by employees and the workplace culture too.

Interested in this topic? Explore more articles on culture in our company culture hub.

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